Issue #141 On Paralysis, Part 1

On Paralysis, Part 1

Evan Calder Williams

Alaska Railroad tracks and bridge near the head of Turnagain Arm severely damaged by the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Unknown Author. License: Public Domain.

Issue #141
December 2023

Thus to the strike of arms and brains was added the strike of machines and material.

—Emile Pataud and Emile Pouget, How We Shall Bring About the Revolution


During the atrocious October of this year, attention to the acutely charged language taking precedence in English-language media revealed a particularly heavy reliance on one term: “paralysis.” For a largely metaphorical term, this reliance was not only recurrent but also distinct for how it spanned two radically different contexts. On one hand, it was deployed repetitively to frame the stasis and chaos of the US House of Representatives, as far-right Republicans “threw the chamber into a state of paralysis.” The “House remains paralyzed with no end in sight” said one report, and another, in an odd doubling, stated that a “paralyzed federal government paralyzes the nation.”1 On the other, the term appeared again and again with regards to the war on Gaza. Former prime minister Ehud Barak insisted Israel was “determined to make sure that Hamas is paralyzed,” while Dr. Mustafa Barghouti warned urgently that Gaza was “heading towards a complete paralysis of the medical system.” News outlets and sources on the ground alike spoke of a “total paralysis of economic activity,” of the ambulance response “paralyzed” by communications blackout, and of how, in the words of Riyad Mansour, the response of the UN Security Council was “paralysed, not acting.”2 Yet the repetition of the term is by no means new or the sign of a search for dramatic language amidst the unspeakable. It reaches back long before, as part of the explicit long-term strategy of Israel and how it has “virtually paralyzed the Palestinian population without ‘defeating’ it,”3 aiming to make “the whole population captive to fear and paralysis.”4 And it extends far beyond a mere figurative use, to the way that the military tactics themselves described under the sign of this term harm those with physical paralysis, especially those whose assistive devices were destroyed in the bombing, and who now confront an even greater difficulty in “relocating” themselves than what was already faced by all the other Palestinians guided by Israel to the supposed safe zones that were subsequently bombed.5

In this context, the use of the word “paralysis,” and the circuits formed between its metaphorical and bluntly corporeal meanings, is markedly dense and bleak. Yet its appearance here is hardly exceptional, because both as a specific term and as a trope, paralysis has become so central to contemporary thought about politics, war, labor, subjectivity, and infrastructure that it vanishes into ubiquity, only becoming discernible when we start to actively track its repetitions. Similar to “sabotage,” to which it has been closely bound for the past 130 years, the idea of paralysis, as well as the word itself, gets employed both in highly specific contexts, such as military operations and shipping strikes, and in wholly generic ones, from casual conversation to the dire hinterland between pop psychology and management-consultancy speak. But unlike sabotage, which was relatively rare slang prior to being explicitly posed as a political tactic in the 1890s by French anarcho-syndicalists (and then proceeding to become a word deployed everywhere from guerrilla warfare handbooks to sleep apnea clickbait), a full genealogy of paralysis would need to trace its links across more enormous historical and geographic terrain. Because even if we are to restrict the term to just its English variant (and to other languages that inherit the same Greek root “παράλυσις,” itself meaning “palsy” or simply “paralysis”), the term is ancient, in continued use, and marked again and again by a conduit between actual experiences of bodily paralysis, the particular social visibility and denigration of those who are paralyzed, and the word’s use as a metaphor for any inability to act despite the intention to do so.

University of Tokyo protests, 1969. Photo: Hitomi Watanabe.

This essay is not any attempt at such a total genealogy. Rather, as part of my wider research into histories of forms of agency and insurgence that hover at the edge of what is understood as political, I read across and between the prevalent contemporary uses of paralysis to try and defamiliarize the idea and make its peculiar contours palpable again. In doing so, what becomes apparent is that despite those persistent and almost transhistorical uses, the idea and word now indexes a historically quite specific and comparatively recent set of anxieties and possibilities. These are ones intimately bound to the production and reproduction of a world that is itself bound together in increasingly complex networks of capital, territory, technology, and organic life. And paralysis is right at the heart of them. Because insofar as those social and material circuits are marked not only by attempts to decrease inefficiency and friction within processes of exchange but also by the “tight coupling” of infrastructural and circulatory systems of labor, machinery, resources, fuel, and computation, paralysis becomes the prospect to be warded off at all costs, insofar as it means lag time, stoppages, bottlenecks, and missed connections.

To be sure, this is not a story of total rationalization, of a general tendency towards a lightly dystopian but smoothly functioning set of flows in which digital logistics and streamlining reign supreme. There is no contradiction between complex computation and the uneven and profoundly violent geographies of capital whose material processes are often literally paralyzing to the bodies enmeshed in them, from zones of war to labor that is repetitive, debilitating, and toxic. Yet insofar as these geographies and those who profit from them are dependent on the technical and social circuits detailed above, they are also continually threatened by those same circuits, because they incorporate and require the very mechanisms that enable their disabling. In other words, the histories at work here—of blackouts, care strikes, downed servers, blocked shipping corridors, dynamited railways—are neither those of political pressure nor of simple destruction. They are histories of interstices, and of what can be activated, sabotaged, turned against itself and interrupted so as to produce an interval that cannot be endured, whether by a corporation whose fruit sits rotting at a port or by a city under siege by “nonlethal” strategic bombing that destroys access to fresh water.

The name for this interval is paralysis itself.


But how exactly does this term and trope get used, beyond reference to actual bodily paralysis? In its most basic sense, and the one common among these varied instances, it names a condition of inaction that persists against any intention to act or react. More specifically—and counter to the way that corporeal paralysis is often experienced and culturally envisioned as permanent, marking a catastrophic shift in how a life will be lived from that point on—paralysis as a figure of political and social thought instead frames a distinct kind of reversible breakdown, one that is not understood as violence, or even damage, per se. Rather, it implies a temporary interruption of the expected connections between thought and action. That interruption can lead to disastrous consequences, because of an inability to respond, flee, reply, decide, or fight back, but it does not signal a disaster or decisive debilitating event in and of itself. Instead, its specificity lies in how it renders suddenly irrelevant the technical ability to do something, or the possession of adequate strength or skill or tools or supplies. In this way, the idea of paralysis in its wider drift of meaning crucially comes to mark not a negation of ability or capacity in general but a breakdown of the links that bind sender to receiver, whether they be neurological or social, electronic or inscribed by the repeated transit of a shipping container back and forth across the sea. And although paralysis gets used as an idea across a seemingly heterogeneous range of instances, these links are not of any connection whatsoever. As suggested before, they are particularly those that alone enable a hypothetically seamless passage from decision to transmission to result—and often from extraction to production to distribution to consumption—and that remain taken for granted until becoming suddenly evident in the interval of paralysis, when the communication6 that passes through them gets scrambled, halted, or lost somewhere in that interstitial space.

These aspects are all active in the most quotidian use of the idea, that of being paralyzed with fear or indecision. Both variants are familiar in daily conversation and in how we try to narrate the loss of our ability to respond when we need to most, or the way we spin in circles around what should be a simple choice. They also become stock phrases and notions of particular interest to the grifters of self-help and pop psychology who seek to profit off such experiences—grifters such as Lisa Jimenez.7 A Christian management consultant, Jimenez manages to join together the two versions of fear and indecision:

One of the biggest barriers that all salespeople have to overcome is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of change. Fear of success. Fear of making decisions. Fear of responsibility. Fear of commitment. It is fear (and all of its cousins, such as worry, anxiety, depression, and self-doubt) that will turn your dream of success into a chilling nightmare that haunts you into paralysis.8

For the most part, paralysis by fear and paralysis by decision-making aren’t so interwoven, or at least not like in this baleful slab of aspiring business guru ideology. To speak of the former, which is often interchangeable with the language of being “frozen” or “petrified,” describes a sudden confrontation with something that is terrifying or traumatic, and that demands the very urgency of response that paralysis paradoxically prohibits. To be clear, this is hardly just a figure of speech. It describes a real physiological reaction known in humans and nonhuman animals alike as “tonic immobility.” The social stakes are enormous, given that it is this reaction that is not only common among those subjected to sexual assault or abuse, but that is also continuously cited as one of the reasons to deny the validity of their claims, under the pretext of someone having not “fought back.” This sense of freezing up when faced with threat is active in other forms of figuring paralysis as well. It appears often in the context of hypnosis or a sense of fascination (Siegfried Bernfeld: “Fascination … is a state of extremely heightened attention together with complete motor inhibition; if that state was continued longer it would be possible to speak of paralysis”).9 And in the incisive work of Spyros Papapetros, to be paralyzed is not the opposite of being animated but the consequence of excess animation, of an excitation that has nowhere to go and, so overwhelmed, ends in paralysis: “Every instance of animation is complemented by an equivalent occurrence of paralysis. As in the myth of Daphne … excitation rises to such levels that the subject instantly freezes and is unable to react.”10

Film still from Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens directed by  F.W. Murnau, 1922.

Conversely, with decision-making, it is the lack of urgency that ends up generating urgency, as too much time, too much choice, and too many variables to consider end up deferring any decision until the situation indeed becomes pressing. However, what joins these two versions is that whether there is excess of threat/stimulation or excess of options, the resultant paralyses are grasped as internal, thick with the sense of being betrayed by your own body and mind, and resulting in a stasis that evinces not only that something has gone extremely wrong with mechanisms of thought and response but also that this stasis was produced by their regular function, rather than its absence. A hardwired system of almost instinctual response overloads an organism when it needs it the most. A complex capacity to reflect and consider possible courses of action reveals so many paths that it can’t pick a single one. In those moments, we feel ourselves riven, as the illusion of being a self-controlling subject of free will falls apart to show us instead as a system in disarray, one unable to restore the grace and autonomy of instantaneous reaction that conceptions of the able-bodied and able-minded take as both given and natural.

Even if this trope of individual paralysis has now entered the dual terrain of almost unspeakable shock and excessively speakable TED talks, the greatest influence on it comes from a far more specific and precise field of inquiry into speech, that of psychoanalysis. This is also the source of the distinct notion of torqued subjectivity undergirding contemporary paralysis: a subject subjected to the revenge effects of their own modes of processing and responding. However, we can’t reduce this to a simple influence of psychoanalysis on ideas of paralysis. The influence flows the other way as well, because the question of paralysis forms one of the key points of departure in the early years of Sigmund Freud’s thinking and practice, as well as in the wider orbits of analysis that take shape around him. Within that span of research, paralysis functions specifically as the most explicit instance of a physically manifesting symptom whose causes cannot be located in any specific bodily injury or defect. It is there in Freud’s reckoning with Charcot’s category of “hysterical paralysis,” his subsequent “Some Points for a Comparative Study of Organic and Hysterical Motor Paralyses” (1888), the case study of Anna O., and outwards from there.11 It is also present beyond these most explicit appearances, because the dynamic I identified at the core of paralysis animates one of the central impulses of psychoanalysis: to seek to understand the exchanges and feedback12 between language and body, information and materiality, and conscious intention and resultant action, yet crucially to do so through attention to where and when those relations don’t work, through a symptomatology of the disrupted, misplaced, projected, and repressed.

Psychoanalytic concerns and concepts are also evident in another frequent use of paralysis, one that transposes the individual logic of fear/indecision onto a mass level in order to diagnose the problem of negated collective experience and thwarted political possibility. This version is particularly common in radical and Marxist theorists, organizers, and artists across a broad geographical range, including throughout anti-colonial political and artistic histories. In Latin American writings on cinema, for instance, Fernando Berri insists in 1962 that “Latin American filmmakers must transform all such technical limitations into new expressive possibilities, if we are not to remain paralyzed by them,” while Julio Garcia Espinosa suggests that in the horizon of popular liberation, “nobody and nothing will any longer be able to again paralyze the creative spirit of the people.”13 This sense of colonialism’s blockage and neutralization of popular energies is also active in Amilcar Cabral, in a manner analogous to the “thingification” of Aimé Cesaire: for Cabral, the “main effect produced by the impact of imperialism on the historical process of the dominated people is paralysis, stagnation (even in some cases, regression) in that process.”14

One can find mass paralysis playing an especially important role across the Frankfurt School and associated thinkers. It is explicitly present in the work of Walter Benjamin (as the consequence of a “defensive mimetic adaptation that protects at the price of paralyzing”)15 and of Herbert Marcuse (a “paralysis of criticism”). For Theodor Adorno, paralysis appears both within its hypnotic and spell-casting form—such as his account of how the “element of madness … paralyzes and attacks followers of mass movements of all kinds”16—and in his reformulation, in Minima Moralia, of the trope of the shocks of modernity and its penetration of psychic defense: “Everywhere, with each explosion, it has breached the barrier against stimuli beneath which experience, the lag between healing oblivion and healing recollection, forms. Life has changed into a timeless succession of shocks, interspaced with empty, paralyzed intervals.”17

A train carrying crude oil burns after being derailed on 22 December 2020 in Custer, Washington. Photograph: David Ryder.

I will note here a crucial aspect of this usage, where the paralysis appears not as a paralyzed thing or being, but rather as taking shape in the intermediary intervals of experience and communication, as I’ve already stressed.18 But in that orbit of thinkers, paralysis is most explicitly central in Siegfried Kracauer, particularly by 1947 and From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, where it forms his key category for periodizing cinema according to the collective stasis he saw as pivotal to the emergence and stabilization of fascism. (Indeed, for Kracauer, the “decline of the German screen is nothing but the reflection of a widespread inner paralysis.”19) Lastly, however, we shouldn’t treat the use of paralysis as a trope unique to a critique of bourgeois morals and of conservative fantasies of decadence: it is also highly active in them. It is, for instance, thoroughly prevalent in Mein Kampf, in multiple formulations of how “fighting vigor” and “the instinct of national self-preservation” are halted by various paralyses—including a “creeping paralysis”—caused by pacifism, races seen as degenerate, modernity, and all the other scapegoats to be expected from a fascist imaginary. We can also find a striking instance of its role in the anxieties of American white supremacism, as in the letter from Walter Jones to Secretary of State James Monroe in 1814, which obsesses over how the “disaffection of the blacks is daily gaining extent & boldness,” giving evidence of how the “same heedless Imbecility that destroys our Efforts against the external Enemy [in the war of 1812], paralyses every thing like vigilance & Police.”20

Yet if these instances all to a greater or lesser degree preserve the basic metaphor of individual paralysis as a way to frame the mass or the body politic, we can see something adjacent but critically different in the next major version: paralysis as a breakdown of political decision-making. Some iterations continue to pay attention to the consequences of “analysis paralysis,” such as Mikhail Bakunin’s diagnosis of the failure of political decision within the Paris Commune, caused by those who could not “overcome and subdue many of their own bourgeois prejudices.” (Unable to take decisive action and “go beyond generalities,” the result was that “they were paralyzed, and they paralyzed the Commune.”21) But more potently, this version of the paralysis trope gives a name to the familiar snarl of procedure and bureaucracy that generates its own inability to either take action or respond to input.22 In large part, and as the sheer inutility of the American legislative branch shows, this can become endemic, a general stasis that contributes to the general erosion of faith in mainstream politics. This paralysis is not solely accidental, not just a side effect of red tape that grinds progress to a halt. It also is actively wielded as threat and tool through which procedures and measures of alleged balance allow individuals to entirely sever the connection between proposed action, which may well have near-total consensus or public support behind it, and actual next steps taken. In his critique of Tommy Tuberville’s one-man blockade of military nominations, Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican from Texas, insisted that, “to hold up the top brass from being promoted and lower brass, I think, is paralyzing our Department of Defense.”23 Conversely, Rosa Luxemburg, writing in 1918, argued that the “imperialist capitalist class”—to which McCaul and Tuberville alike most certainly belong—deploys not just “brutality” (and “will mobilize heaven and hell against the proletariat”) but also will “try to paralyze every socialist measure with a thousand methods of passive resistance.”24 And among those passive forms, we must include the use of political form itself. Analogously to what Max Liebermann warned for painting in 1904 (“The paralysis of form into dogma would be the paralysis of art itself, would be its death”25), Luxemburg’s analysis opens towards an astute political imaginary of the dangers of bureaucratic formalism itself, including socialist parties and labor unions. Indeed, this is what Leon Trotsky identifies in 1938: “Leading political organizations … do everything possible to keep in check and paralyze the revolutionary pressure of the masses.”26 And taking this further, we can see, within anarchist and left-communist lines of thought, a suspicion of not just specific organizational forms but also the dangers of any separation of elected representatives from “the masses” they purport to represent in the first place.27 Peter Kropotkin, writing also of the Paris Commune, suggests that, Paris having “sent her devoted sons to the town hall,” those representatives lost “the inspiration which only comes from continual contact with the masses, [and] they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Being paralyzed by their separation from the people—the revolutionary center of light and heat—they themselves paralyzed the popular initiative.”28 His deployment of the trope is precise here, insofar as it centers, like in Adorno’s text, not on the paralysis of some specific individual or group but on the way paralysis is generated by a failure of connection, a breakdown of the necessary feedback between information, critique, and action that leaves the revolution stranded in those “empty, paralyzed intervals.”

A squirrel on a power pole. Photo coutesy of Sarah Hina / Flickr.

We can move from this to the final two tendencies where the trope of paralysis gets used even more consistently: the paralysis of technical infrastructure, particularly in its failure or blackout, and the paralysis of the reproduction of capital, especially when caused by a strike, blockade, or disabling of key elements.29 Regarding the former, these instances of infrastructural dysfunction can be an un-authored breakdown, just the inevitable consequence of the tight coupling of a system, its lack of adequate fail-safes, and, in the case of electrical grids, the sheer length of cable versus the cussed determination of squirrels to gnaw and burrow. Consider, for instance, David Nye’s excellent work on such blackouts, where paralysis is the term and notion returned to again and again; or how it appears in Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security, a 1982 Pentagon study rereleased after 9/11, which details how the “disagreeable lack of resilience and a high cost of failure” of “centralized computers” results in “whole corporations, including such time-sensitive ones as airlines and banks [being] paralyzed.”30 Attention to this use of the idea also lets us detect one of the most crucial aspects of how paralysis is imagined in general beyond its bodily referent: the sense that it is only in the interval of breakdown that the unseen centrality of what reproduces daily life comes to the fore.31 As Stephen Graham puts it, “Paradoxically, it is the moment when the blackout occurs, when the server is down, when the subway workers strike or the water pipe ceases to function, that the dependence of cities on infrastructure becomes most visible.”32

However, paralysis is used even more pointedly in the language of military operations—whether by sovereign or insurgent forces—that aim to actively produce these situations of paralysis. A full accounting of this would be far too long, so I will only note here two crucial and recurrent elements. The first, as evidenced in the 1992 thesis of US Air Force Major Jason Barlow, is a focus on the specific capacity of airpower—i.e., bombing— to induce “strategic paralysis,” which involves targeting the connective mechanisms that allow a power to continue to wage war.33 The second is the claim that paralysis—of an army, city, population, or supply chain—is a way to reduce casualties and bring about an end to hostilities with minimal damage. This extends to how purportedly “nonlethal weapons” try to avoid the public spectacle and political cost of civilian death by aiming “to deter, confine, remove from activity, paralyze, confuse, stop, neutralize, distract, disperse, isolate,” and so on from there.34 Moreover, this sense of the effects on individuals and social infrastructure is key, because it also feeds back into the kind of uncertainty, impasse, and distrust that was identified by many theorists as the danger of a mass paralysis of political possibility. Cyberwar—which inherits the consistent language of paralysis, especially because of its ability to disable without causing physical or visible damage—directly weaponizes this confusion. An account of a 1997 internally authorized test hack of the Pentagon and the electrical grid details how the “hackers also managed to infect the human command-and-control system with a paralyzing level of mistrust. Orders that appeared to come from a commanding general were fake, as were bogus news reports on the crisis and instructions from the civilian command authorities.”35 Moreover, such an attack obscures the simple clarity of source, or of even coming from hostile intent, let alone a sovereign power. As Wei Jincheng points out, “An information war is inexpensive, as the enemy country can receive a paralyzing blow through the Internet, and the party on the receiving end will not be able to tell whether it is a child’s prank or an attack from an enemy.”36

However, imperialist powers have no lock on infrastructural paralysis. If anything, as the cunning involved suggests, it has been historically employed by those with less firepower and fewer resources, forming a critical tactic of anti-imperial fighters whom occupying forces try to destroy (yet whom they ultimately learn from and imitate).37 We can trace the idea through long histories of attacks on colonizers and energy, transport, and supply-chain infrastructures alike. For example, in 1999, the Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey spoke of the “need to organise Niger Delta-wide days of action to build up to a climax which would be represented in continuous mass action around oil and gas installations effectively shutting the flow stations and paralysing the activities of transnational capital.”38 And if Cabral saw colonization as productive of a cultural paralysis, he advocated infrastructural paralysis in return. Guerrilla bases should be located “mainly at strategic points in such a way as to paralyse the enemy and to threaten them on all sides, wherever they are.” Armed action should extend

to our urban centres (cities and towns) to sow insecurity among the enemy … Shell the enemy barracks, even shell the market places of towns and cities, create conditions which paralyse any commercial activity, make swift and energetic raids, carry out acts of sabotage against camps, offices, petrol stocks, water reserves, troop carriers and administration transport, etc. But for the time being avoid any act of terrorism against the unarmed European or African population.39

Here again is evidence of what will become so central to the trope across the twentieth century: taking action to produce inaction and to neutralize the capacities of a system to maintain a way of life, but in a way that separates this from primarily taking lives.

Lastly, the paralysis of capital. This is arguably the single most consistent, yet still largely unexamined, use of the idea, appearing again and again in the language of organizers and historians alike to describe the effect of the withdrawal of labor (or the disabling of tools of labor) that results in the temporary breakdown in circulation. Even more than the other versions, there are simply too many examples of this to traverse from the last century and a half. It is omnipresent across both significant labor histories and mainstream reporting on strikes, and from quite different moments. Louie Adamic’s Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (1931, revised in 1934) speaks of the way that the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 leads to “the entire system [being] paralyzed,”40 while the newspapers he quotes also use the same language, bemoaning how “business is fairly paralyzed here.” Beverly J. Silver’s Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870, published seven decades after Adamic’s volume, writes of a UAW strike in 1937 that “paralyzed GM’s Fisher Body Plant” and quotes the New York Times’ account of another GM strike in 1997 that, in their words, “virtually paralyzed” operations.41 A postal official says of the effect of strikes in 1970 that “we’re very close to paralysis … what is still functioning is hardly worthy of calling a postal system,” while CNBC writes of the 2015 “paralysis” of West Coast ports.42 The term is used liberally by those who condemn its use as a tactic, like the anti-syndicalists James Boyle (who argues that the general strike is used “to cripple and ruin employers, and to paralyze the industries of the country”) and John Spargo (“This social cataclysm is to take the form of the General Strike, when the proletariat paralyzes society by becoming motionless”).43 It is used equally by those who celebrate it, again and again, from workerists to anarchists, Wobblies to forest defenders. And notably, it’s a central category for theorists of sabotage, for those who articulated a defense of one of the most demonized tactics and forms of political thought in the last century. Across their accounts, it becomes not a synonym for sabotage but the word used to describe the interval it produces, in which significant damage is done to efficiency and profits alone, rather than to individual persons or even to machinery. Emile Pouget, largely responsible for the formal posing of sabotage and who argues for “Intelligent Paralyzation Versus Stupid Destruction,” insists that

sabotage must be directed against the boss either by reducing the output or by deteriorating and making unusable the product or by disabling and paralyzing the instruments of production—but the consumer, we repeat, must never suffer by this war waged exclusively against the exploiter.44

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who I’d argue was the twentieth century’s most compelling theorist of sabotage, turns to the idea of paralysis multiple times throughout her texts and speeches. In one instance, which shows the same distinction between paralysis and physical danger or violence, she suggests that “mass action is far more up-to date than personal or physical violence. Mass action means that the workers withdraw their labor power, and paralyze the wealth production of the city, cut off the means of life, the breath of life of the employers.”45

Six decades later, in a context where Italian feminists had to articulate the way that the work of social reproduction was not only productive of value but at the very heart of the maintenance and circulation of capital itself, the Emilia Romagna’s Coordinating Committee for Wages for Domestic Work writes that “if we went on a strike we would not leave unfinished products or raw materials untransformed etc.: by interrupting our work we wouldn’t paralyse the production but the daily reproduction of the working class.”46 And for the perpetuity of a social order that requires gendered exploitation to function, it is this paralysis—not the bombing of hospitals, not the disabling of servers, not the panic of individuals unable to respond—that is most frightening of all.


What, then, to do with paralysis? What sense to make of its appearance across these registers, a recurrence so regular and widespread that it can’t be chalked up to mere rhetorical flourish or vivid simile? For a start, we can note a striking consistency to its various uses, enough to detect a specific quality at the heart of what the idea does and why it can’t be left alone. Namely, paralysis has become one of the central figures of thought used to talk and think about the failure of politics itself. It gets deployed to reckon with what fails to function, or to be adequately managed, within the expected terrain, parameters, and protocols of political activity—and especially within a framework that hinges on elected representation and the promise of an engaged public of individual citizens. Yet its specificity doesn’t lie in that failure itself. As daily experience and the trope of paralysis itself draw out, such continual disconnection, incoherence, and impasse is the ground of contemporary electoral politics, not the exception. So what is particular is how these often apolitical and at times anti-political processes generate profound effects by disrupting or weaponizing the infrastructures, patterns, and flows that themselves must function as the basic ground for the reproduction of any social, let alone political, system or life. In other words, paralysis names the threat of an agency that starts where politics ends.47

Indeed, we can note this sense of paralysis as something extra-political across all the uses I detailed earlier, including those that are felt in the most intimate way. For instance, that alternately animating/petrifying force of fear, fascination, indecision, or trauma erodes the illusion of a rational zone of civic engagement.48 How? The standard conception of politics that underwrites contemporary liberal capitalist societies is one that relies on the premise and promise that measured thought will translate into reasonable and calculated response or action, and from there into an equitable public exchange.49 But nothing names the threatened breakdown of that so clearly as the trope of paralysis, as it specifies the disruption of that very conduit between thought and action, as well as any idea that simply “knowing better” will result in a more balanced, rational interaction. To be paralyzed with fear or in a distressed stasis of indecision is neither to misunderstand a situation nor to lack enough education to understand better. It is to have understanding cease to be enough, because the pathways that might lead from intent to act have been nullified.

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt. 2021.

The sense of the extra-political is also and more obviously active in the paralysis of political decision-making. Here the mechanisms and organizational forms designed to facilitate decision-making—and indeed, to overcome “mass paralysis” and achieve progress—become what damns that possibility. The result is a sheer morass of legislative procedure, inflexible hierarchies and priorities, and a corrosive doubt about the ability of anything that gets called “politics” to do more than spin in circles. Filibusters spool out and out, default looms behind blown deadlines, and committees can’t decide if they are voting to take a vote or just actually voting. As a result, the frequent paralyses of political process, from a government shutdown to the incapacity of a union to recognize and channel the dissent of its members, make evident that any sense of collective agency will need to exit the sanctioned terrain of the political, at least insofar as that terrain is bordered by strictures of law, procedure, and elected officials. And fittingly, when it does so, the tactics turned to are those themselves understood as trying to produce intervals of economic and social paralysis: direct action, disruption of supply chains, blockades and pickets, refusal of expected but unrecognized labor.

Lastly, with regards to “strategic paralysis,” guerrilla attacks on infrastructure, cyberwar, and the withdrawal of labor or use of strikes to block circulation, there is a willful exit from any possible diplomacy or negotiation. Representation is quit in favor of the blunt fact of how goods move, how data transfers, how water flows, and who, as much as what, forms the vital points of transformation and connection through those operational sequences. Yet more than that, this is an exit also from conventional theaters of military engagement into a terrain that shows itself disarmingly borderless. If the paralysis of politics leaves behind the fixation on the square, the forum, and the parliament, the martial paralysis of communication turns from the battlefield to the infrastructures, both social and technical, of capital and daily life alike. Even before contemporary military operations and cyberwar recasts all quotidian space into a possible threatscape, paralytic tactics read the between for what it can do to what it is supposed to support.50 The same can be said for the paralysis of capital, which carries out this kind of reading on itself. It moves not only beyond legislation into the plain question of whether work does or does not get done and the harder calculus of how long who can hold out; it also asks: What does it means to strike in sites and times that unions, parties, and theorists alike refuse to recognize as legitimate or as where labor even happens?

Yet there is another terrain here that remains consistently unacknowledged. This is the gap between the metaphors of paralysis—like those used to talk about networks, machines, and bureaucracies—and the actual corporeal and social experiences of being paralyzed, experiences that are exceptionally nonmetaphorical.51 If, in the influential framing of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, disability gets deployed in discourses as a “narrative prosthesis,” then paralysis shows itself to be a prosthesis of peculiar importance and recurrence, one that can be stunningly indifferent to what it is to live with a paralyzing impairment in a world steadfastly built counter to adequate support.52 However, I don’t think we can reduce the use of paralysis as a trope, especially within anarchist, anti-colonial, and socialist history, to just a callous ignorance of the lived experiences of paralyzing impairments, even though the discourse of those histories is consistently marked by ableist imaginaries shaping ideas of what and who should take precedence in processes of struggle and liberation. Rather, this tension between the physical and the symbolic is part of a complicated net of relations that is central to the very idea of paralysis itself. I consider these along three lines. First, and what will be my primary focus in the next installment of this essay, is exactly this question of disability, debilitation, and its centrality to histories of capital and empire. More specifically, I’ll examine the way that processes of war, labor, and circulation—the ones that get spoken about through paralysis—not only perpetuate processes of damage that can be literally paralyzing but also constitute a system that legally and materially generates these kind of uneasy equivalences between humans, systems, machinery, and spaces.

Second, paying closer attention to the trope of paralysis shows that its meaning points in a substantially different direction from the other familiar ableist metaphors of crippling, hobbling, blinding, and hamstringing. All of those suggest an injury that is both grievous and obvious, a violence done to capacity in a way that is permanent (or at least that will require a long period of recovery) and, crucially, that can immediately be seen and proven. But as shown by my sketch of how the trope gets used, paralysis’s breakdown of the ability to react or function is above all temporary: it is seen either to produce no physical damage—such as the labor strike or cyberattack—or to do so tactically and minimally, only at points of connection whose disabling will produce exponentially greater consequences without the attacker being seen to maim, kill, or destroy.53

Still from Solidarity, directed by Joyce Wieland, 1973.

So counter to “being paralyzed” as a potent image of permanence, like being in the wake of significant spinal trauma, paralysis as a name for extra-political breakdown names something closer to a drug, a paralyzing toxin, “knockout drops,” or a targeted nerve. It is a term for what is able to temporarily produce that lag or noise between expected points in a circuit, in the communication of commodities and data alike. But if this language sounds too cybernetic or austere, too immaterial or digital, I should stress that the acts that make these moments are plainly and obstinately physical, and often exhaustingly so. They mean waiting in the rain to block a port, or stretching funds to make a strike hold out and out, or uncoupling the rails from their ties to keep scab trains from rolling through. We can think of the feet in Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity, her 1973 film about a factory strike in Ontario. Because while the speeches and chants unfold, and people try to spur enthusiasm against the gradual leeching of energy that comes from not just an afternoon but days and weeks and months, the camera holds on the feet of the crowd, as they shuffle and strain and, every so often, lift from the ground to try and work blood back into what goes numb from staying still too long.

The third complication of metaphor and meaning, however, concerns the terms of that very operation I’ve been detailing, where a cultural meaning drifts free from, or combines in strange ways with, a lived relation to physical and mental experience. Because when we dwell on paralysis, it becomes apparent that it isn’t just one instance among many where we can detect a dislocation of experience and representation happening, as in the various narrative uses of disability. Rather, paralysis is specifically a trope about that very drift, collapse, and confusion, naming nothing so much as the unexpected frictions and interference between, on one hand, information, signal, language, or code, and, on the other, a reaction or action that is manifestly corporeal or material. So if it is a metaphor, it’s a metaphor about what happens when it is impossible to draw a clean divide between what is “just a metaphor” and what hurts. It is about the temporary loss of a stable and assured relation between what a word, code, or signal is supposed to represent or activate, and the muscle, turbine, or human workforce that is supposed to respond to it, through the intervening technical form that translates between them, whether that is digital or managerial.

Some of the critical resources I already detailed are caught in this from the beginning, and often in ways that fail them. For instance, if psychoanalysis already suggests a complicated relationship between the symbolic and the physical, we can see how much that tension was largely answered in that field through a primacy of the former, a commitment to a dephysicalized topology of the psyche, and a focus on the production of undesired bodily effects through structures of desire and language themselves.54 In this regard, Catherine Malabou’s corrective around “cerebrality,” and the way it poses anew the traumatic physicality of thought that cannot be seen within the parameters of the symbolic, is crucial, not as an attack on the entire framework of psychoanalysis but as an insistence that we keep reopening the question of the material and the informational.55 Yet I want to end here further from critical theory and with a single text that in many ways holds all the contradictions in what I’ve been tracking across these fields and histories. Because in the time that I’ve been attuned to the idea of paralysis, one of the instances that has stayed with me the most comes near the end of Ricardo Piglia’s 1997 novel Burnt Money (Plata quemada).

The novel is based largely on an actual armored-car robbery in 1965 in Buenos Aires, and it centers on two men who are lovers. When one is shot during the robbery, it provokes the other to kill the car’s guards in revenge, which brings in turn a massive effort by the state to kill them. By the end of the novel, the robbers are holed up in an apartment, under siege and waiting for the next attempt by police to storm the place. And although this is not the only mention of “paralysis” in the book (as we get the formulation paralizado de terror several times), it is this scene, the one that gives the novel its title, that is worth quoting in full:

They began throwing burning thousand peso bills out of the window. From the kitchen skylight they could get the burning money to float down over the corner. The burning bills, they looked like butterflies of fire.

A murmur of indignation raged through the crowd. “They’re burning it.” “They’re burning the money.”

If the money was all that justified the deaths, and if what they had done they had done just for money, and now they are burning it, that means they have no morals, no motives, that they act and kill gratuitously, for pleasure, from pure evil, that they are born killers, cold criminals, inhuman. Indignant, the citizens watching the scene cried out in horror and hatred, as if (according to the newspapers) in some sort of medieval witches’ sabbath; they could not bear to watch nearly half a million dollars burn before their eyes in an operation that paralyzed the city and nation in horror [que paralizó de horror a la ciudad y al país] and that lasted for fifteen interminable minutes, the time it takes to burn that astronomical amount of money, those bills which for reasons beyond the control of the authorities were destroyed in a metal can that in Uruguay is called a patona usually used to remove the coal from beneath a hot grill.56

There is so much at stake and at work here, an entire theory of paralysis in just these remarkable paragraphs. As a way into that, we might start with the time it takes: “fifteen interminable minutes.” This drawn-out duration of methodical burning is crucial not only for the way it challenges any sense of paralysis as a sudden, event-like shock but also for the blunt materiality of “the time it takes to burn that astronomical amount of money.” Because what we see in this is simultaneously a confirmation of the tremendous symbolic value assured by the state (“nearly half a million dollars”) and a collapse of that value, of its fictional autonomy and immateriality. Money is shown to be something that can in fact be burned, that is neither sovereign nor transcendent but just paper and ink, and that takes an “interminable” amount of time to torch simply because unlike the digital wiping of a balance, you can only rush fire so far. It is in this space, and in the witnessing of this immolation, that paralysis becomes the word Piglia uses, and rightly so. If, in Furio Jesi’s generative account of the Spartacist uprising, revolt produces a suspension of historical time, then the burning of this money, and the sight of it drifting aflame from the open window above, produces a momentary paralysis of social time. By that I mean both the time naturalized by the social relations of capital—the temporal ordering and valuing it enacts and props up through wages, property, debt, and policing—and the social imaginary of other forms that could be possible were it not for the dominance of capital’s organization of life. However, the collapse here does not generate some vista of a glorious beyond. Instead, it appears under the sign of what is meaningless and stupid, all the bloodshed not worth it even within some arcane metric of financial worth, and so senseless that it extends to the money itself, which is shown to be paper, just paper, nothing more, and then not even that, just ash. When economic value, the most powerful unit of information in the world, ceases to organize what happens and goes up in literal smoke, how can one not be stopped, alive in one’s tracks?

Yet here there is also anger, as the “indignant crowd immediately thought of the needy, the poor, those living in the Uruguayan countryside in precarious circumstances, and the orphans for whom that money might have guaranteed a future.”57 This fury comes close to becoming what we might recognize as conventionally political, for the obvious next step would be to say that money should not be needed to guarantee that future. How dare they burn money teeters on the knife’s edge of another thought: How dare money be the arbiter of who should be able to not merely survive but flourish. After all, the same state whose existence alone guarantees the value of the bills could also declare the worth of those living in precarious circumstances. It could organize the defense of that life beyond value.

It could. But it doesn’t and won’t. The brilliance of Piglia’s account is to refuse any easy and hopeful turn, as if the sight of the cash aflame would spark speculation on the injustices of the financial sphere and its relation to nationhood. Instead, the shock of the moment is total, violent not for the deaths animated by money but for how it tears open those socially assured bonds of value and brings into the open the way that the historicity of money vanishes daily into its use. And so, in the shock of that moment, “everyone understood that the act was a declaration of total war, a direct, well-organized war against society as a whole.”58 Yet again, rather than pointing towards what in society deserves to have war waged against it, it is the waste of money alone, in its burning, that becomes the act to blame, the thing deserving fury.

The most striking thing about what Piglia does here, and why I keep coming back to this passage, is to show how in the wake of this interval of paralysis, when time unfreezes and words return to mouths, what comes to the fore is a set of seeming category errors and blurrings between the economic, the inorganic, the vital, and the punishable. We see a first glimpse of this with the “butterflies of fire,” but the money continues to shape-shift: “Someone had the idea that the money itself was innocent, even if it had been the result of killing and crime, it should not be considered guilty but neutral, a sign whose function depended on the use to which it was put.”59 And it doesn’t stop there, opening through the comments of the crowd into a symbolic chain of metaphors and slippages. The burning of “innocent money is an act of cannibalism,” while the men behind this “should be burnt to a cinder, slowly,” as if money was flesh and fire was eating, as if you are what you stole.60 Everything collapses together. But it doesn’t do so as a mere confusion in the aftermath of the horrifying spectacle, a stretching for fantastic language to describe what boggles the mind. Instead, I’d suggest that what it touches, so briefly, are the real links that are already present, the ones that bind together paper and value, work and flesh, and all the points in the circulation of capital to each other through a million hands, cables, words, and algorithms. It is a fleeting glimpse into the systems that underwrite the reproduction of a social order that actually does treat bodies like machines and butterflies like trash, networks like nerves and pesos like angels. At least in the suspended space of literature, this is a tiny window opening onto paralysis and its confusions and animations, onto possible actions that do not stay within representation but instead go for the junctures in the infrastructure supporting it.

That moment doesn’t last though. And what is it that restores motion, that slams the door on the sight of money being burned as if it was as truly worthless as it deserves to be? It is the cops, they who alone “seemed to react,” who then prepare a “brutal offensive.”61 In this too the novel feels as lucid as it is bleak. Those who are responsible for the bloody maintenance of the borders of property and culpability exit the pause of paralysis not into reflection or critique or refashioning, but into sanctioned violence, the kind that closes off that interval and the inhuman relations seething within it.


These are from, respectively, the New York Times, CNN, and The Conversation, and represent only a tiny portion of this repeated language.


For Mansour’s full comments, see Farah Najjar, “Israel-Hamas War Updates: Netanyahu Rejects Ceasefire After Captive Video,” Al Jazeera, October 30, 2023 .


Jeff Harper, “The 94 Percent Solution: A Matrix of Control,” Middle East Report, no. 216 (2001): 15.


In the 2005 words of Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.


“Gaza: Israeli Attacks, Blockade Devastating for People with Disabilities,” Human Rights Watch, November 1, 2023 .


As a wider part of my work on these questions, I draw on a somewhat older sense of “communication,” which was used equally to speak about materials and symbols/language, rather than prioritizing the latter, as most familiar use in English now does.


As another example, MrBeast, the single most-subscribed individual YouTuber on the planet, speaks of “analysis paralysis” and the fear of not getting it right as what stops aspiring content creators from getting on with the business of making a steady torrent of videos.


This is a book that, for the record, not only thanks the pastors of the megachurch where the author is part of the flock, but that also bundles this idea of paralysis with a now-ubiquitous pairing, that of sabotage. Jimenez, Stop Fear! (, 2002), 11.


Quoted in Ruth Leys, “Death Masks: Kardiner and Ferenczi on Psychic Trauma,” Representations, no. 53 (Winter 1996): 56.


Spyros Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 4.


Freud, Standard Edition, vol. 1, Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts (1886– 99), 157–72. See also Katja Guenther, Localization and Its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the Neuro Disciplines (University of Chicago Press, 2015); and P. J. Koehler, “Freud’s Comparative Study of Hysterical and Organic Paralyses: How Charcot’s Assignment Turned Out,” Archives of Neurology 60, no. 11 (2003).


I am intentionally placing this in a framing that blurs the terms of psychoanalysis with those of cybernetics. This is in part because in the next installment of the essay, I will draw these closer together, but also because of Jacques Lacan’s own suggestion that the model of communication coming from cybernetics will have enormously significant consequences. In his 1955–56 seminar on psychosis, Lacan writes that “we have generalized the notion of communication. In the present state of affairs, it’s touch and go whether the entire theory of what goes on in living beings will be revised as a function of communication. Read anything by Mr. Norbert Wiener; its implications are huge.” The Psychoses, 1955–1956: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III (Norton, 1993), 48.


Fernando Berri, “Cinema and Underdevelopment,” in Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, ed. Michael Chanan (BFI, 1983); Julio Garcia Espinosa, “For an Imperfect Cinema,” Jump Cut, no. 20 (1979): 26.


Amilcar Cabral, “Presuppositions and Objectives of National Liberation in Relation to Social Structure,” in Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings (Monthly Review Press, 1979), 128. Among many other examples, we can also note how for Ivan Illich, counter-productivity rules the day, as autonomous social action is paralyzed by “a surfeit of commodities and treatments,” while for Lewis Mumford, it is automation and technics—particularly in the hierarchization and organization of human social life, made total in the “Megamachine”—that is to blame for having “crippled and paralyzed” contemporary personality. Illich, The Right to Useful Unemployment: And Its Professional Enemies (Marion Boyars, 2000), 67; Mumford, “Technics and the Nature of Man,” Technology and Culture 7, no. 3 (1966).


In the paraphrase of Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October, no. 62 (1992): 17.


Theodor Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on Irrational Culture (Routledge, 1994), 166.


Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (Verso, 2005), 54.


This runs counter to a familiar tendencies in the Marxist use of paralysis, where the strength of the proletariat gets posed as a natural health ruined by the subjective structures accompanying capital. This conception splits into two divergent political tendencies: on one side, the celebration of labor and pride in work, as the innate “wealth” of the proletariat; on the other, a strength that does not affirm the natural tendency of work but instead is a strength only produced by consolidation and refusal as a class. For an example that splits between the two, see Anton Pannekoek’s work, where “the tactical problem is how we are to eradicate the traditional bourgeois mentality which paralyses the strength of the proletarian masses.” Pannekoek, “World Revolution and Communist Tactics,” 1920 .


Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton University Press, 1947), 137.


Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (International Publishers, 1983), 26–27.


“The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State,” 1871 .


Although I am not focusing on this here, we can also find instances of this language and trope used to talk about the consequences of bureaucracy on commerce, as in Max Weber in The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations: “The paralysis of private economic initiative through bureaucracy is not limited to antiquity. Every bureaucracy has the tendency, by virtue of its expansion, to achieve the same effect.” Quoted in John Farrenkopf, “Weber, Spengler, and the Origins, Spirit, and Development of Capitalism,” Comparative Civilizations Review 27, no. 27 (1992): 22.


Quoted in David Cohen, “Tuberville ‘Paralyzing’ Pentagon, House Foreign Affairs Chair Says,” Politico, September 10, 2023 .


“What Does the Spartacus League Want?,” December 1918 . For the further deployment of this term and trope in Luxemburg, see the Junius Pamphlet, which suggests that “the blood-letting of the June days (1848) paralyzed the French workers’ movement for a decade and a half.”


“Imagination in Painting,” in Art in Theory, 1900–2000 (Blackwell, 2003), 32.


“The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” 1938 .


We can add to this Guy Debord’s account of separation in The Society of the Spectacle. He reads Bolshevism as the “inauguration of the state of affairs that is at the heart of the modern spectacle’s domination: the representation of the working class has become an enemy of the working class.” Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press, n.d.), 54. Emphasis in original.


“The Commune of Paris,” 1880 .


To be sure, the lines between the two are blurry, especially when we consider that strikes can bring about the inability of critical infrastructure to function, and attacks on railways or oil pipelines can have dramatic effects on the speed and cost of shipping.


Amory B. Lovins and Hunter Lovins, Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security (Brick House Publishing, 2001), 208.


I address this in part 2 of this essay series, particularly in the context of how it relates to a Heideggerian understanding of technics and what goes missing if we focus on the broken alone.


Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (Verso, 2010), 263.


The primary figure in this thesis and history is arguably Colonel John Warden. See Barlow, Strategic Paralysis: An Airpower Theory for the Present (Air University, 1992).


As Ro’i Ben-Horin puts it, quoted in Graham, Cities Under Siege, 244.


Quoted in Justin Joque, “Cyber-Catastrophe: Towards a Pedagogy of Entropy,” in Pedagogies of Disaster, ed. Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei, Adam Staley Groves, and Nico Jenkins (Punctum Books, 2013), 375.


Wei Jincheng, “New Form of People’s War,” Jiefangjun Bao (The People’s Liberation Army Daily), June 25, 1996, 6. Quoted in Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense, a 2006 RAND corporation volume, 84–85.


A survey of the intelligence literature and military theory of the United States, for instance, reveals just how clearly a century of trying to understand insurgency—and a century of never being able to truly stop it—becomes, in more recent decades, a mimesis of its fundamental strategies.


Quoted in Joan Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Edward Elgar, 2002), 104.


Cabral, Presuppositions and Objectives, 231–32.


Louie Adamic, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (1934), 29.


Beverly J. Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 47.


Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (South End Press, 1997), 259; Allen Wastler, “West Coast Paralysis: Some Winners … Sort Of,” CNBC, February 20, 2015 . See also Timothy Michell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2011), where the word “paralysis” appears again and again as the way to think about what strikes do to cities or energy systems. For example: without “linkages that connected coal to large centres of industrial production within the country, these actions could not have paralysed local energy systems and gained the political force they enjoyed in northern Europe and the United States” (22).


James Boyle, The Minimum Wage and Syndicalism (Stewart and Kidd Company, 1913), 91; John Spargo, Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism (B. W. Huebsch, 1913), 85.


Emile Pouget, Sabotage (Charles Kerr, 1913), 78.


Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “The Truth About the Patterson Strike,” in Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (PM Press, 2011), 217. In another instance, she writes how after taking “a vital part of the train engine away the train does not run at all. So human life is not in danger. They make it a practice to strike such a vital blow that the service is paralysed thereafter.” Flynn, Sabotage (IWW Publishing Bureau, n.d.), 20–21.


Quoted in Claire Fontaine, “Human Strike Within the Libidinal Field,” in Human Strike Has Already Begun and Other Writings (Mute, 2013), 44.


As for the effect of that agency, its social consequences are dramatically split, from the collapse of civil infrastructure brought about by bombing campaigns to the interruption of circuits of shipping that only take shape in order to exploit an uneven geography of wages and regulations.


As for the mass version of this, consider Kracauer’s framing of the “collective paralysis of the soul” that details a historically specific foundation of inactivity, a grounding of nonresponse that will sabotage any effort to organize substantive change because the basic circuits of expected reaction have already been decoupled and thwarted.


This is epitomized by the “listen to all sides” mode typified by the New York Times and centrist liberals, replete with fantasies of neutrality, lucid communication, gradual empathetic understanding, and subsequent negotiation, with earnest perspective-expanding and mainstreaming of fascists along the way.


I have written previously on the notion of threatscape in relation to the distribution of surveillance and transmission throughout lived space. See “Figures in a Threatscape,” in Shard Cinema (Repeater, 2017).


See, for instance, Martin Sullivan’s “Subjected Bodies: Paraplegia, Rehabilitation, and the Politics of Movement” for not only a reckoning with some of what that can entail but also his account of the production of a paraplegic subject position/subjectivity. In Foucault and the Government of Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2015).


That is, even in literature, journalism, film, and political discourses that do not focus primarily or even explicitly on disability, we can recognize how they nevertheless rely upon both specific representations and general tropes of disability—blindness, crippling, etc.—in order to produce the negative ground against which the nominally normal can shape itself. See David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (University of Michigan Press, 2000).


We should note here just how crucial this sense and image of the less-damaging and less-lethal is to the public appearance and ideology of paralytic warfare, because in targeting infrastructure and the mechanisms needed not only for making war but also for the basic maintenance of any social reproduction, it distributes its lethality out ahead in time. (While not unique to American military operations, this has become an absolute hallmark of them.)


Consider, for instance, how the problem of physical localization is answered in Freud’s massively influential 1915 essay “The Unconscious”: “Every endeavour to think of ideas as stored up in nerve-cells and of excitations as travelling along nerve fibres, has miscarried completely … Our psychical topography has for the present nothing to do with anatomy.” In The Freud Reader (Norton, 1989), 579.


Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (Fordham University Press, 2012).


Ricardo Piglia, Burnt Money (excerpt), trans. Daniel Balderston, Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 8, no. 1 (1999): 5.


Piglia, Burnt Money, 5. And though this is not central to this passage, I think we’d be right to see the way in which the senseless and seemingly perverse burning of money gets mapped onto the fact of the protagonists themselves as queer, setting them up as figures posed against the guarantee of a reproducible future.


Piglia, Burnt Money, 5.


Piglia, Burnt Money, 5–6. This opens onto a rich history of blame and category blurring, which in part 2 of this essay I will return to at length through the category of the “deodand.”


Piglia, Burnt Money, 6.


The full passage is: “Just after the act that had paralyzed them all, the police seemed to react, beginning a brutal offensive as if the time during which the nihilists (as they were now called by the newspapers) completed their senseless act had readied them, blinded them, prepared them for the final act of repression” (6).

Disruption, War & Conflict, Capitalism
Disability, Accidents & Disasters, Money & Finance, Negative Anthropology
Return to Issue #141

Evan Calder Williams is an associate professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies for Bard College, where he also teaches in the Human Rights program. He is the author of the books Combined and Uneven Apocalypse; Roman Letters; Shard Cinema; and, forthcoming with Sternberg Press in 2024, Inhuman Resources. He is the translator, with David Fernbach, of Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism and is a Contributing Editor to e-flux journal, as well as a former member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.


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