Issue #143 On Paralysis, Part 2

On Paralysis, Part 2

Evan Calder Williams

During the blackout of 1965, the New York City skyline was a backlit shadow. Photo: Orville Andrews, Hulton Archive. 

Issue #143
March 2024

Continued from “On Paralysis, Part 1

1. Glow in the Dark

Part 1 of this essay considered “paralysis” as trope and idea deployed across a breadth of registers. Despite tremendous differences separating the paralysis of having difficulty making decisions and that of a region’s water supply being devastated by tactical bombing, there are at least three striking continuities between its various uses. First, as a loaded marker of the edge of politics, “paralysis” names a zone where the qualities and predicates of mainstream political activity, such as legal recognizability and public voice, start to give way to extra-political tactics that step fully over that border of representation and negotiation and into a terrain of disruption, gridlock, misfire, and sheer hostility. Second, as a figure of thought rather than as a physical condition, paralysis suggests a distinct relation between time and ability: an inaction that is less about permanent damage or a refusal to act than it is an interval in which signals or intentions are temporarily unable to bring about their expected outcomes. Third, and finally, “paralysis” cannot be reduced to a metaphor borrowed too casually from immensely frustrating experiences of bodily paralysis. Situated in the dense space of transfer that metaphor originally names, paralysis is itself a decoupling of the symbolic and the material that reveals circuits and passages in the temporary severing of their communication.

In this third element, we can detect a particular vocabulary and conceptual operation of hiddenness and revelation that turns out to be more or less explicitly active within so many instances of the paralysis trope. At its simplest, this is an operation that articulates—or, I’d argue, that often assumes without further reflection—a given and unmediated link between breakdown and insight. The stoppage of circulation, infrastructural function, labor, or ongoing processes generates both a negative space of recognition, in which the constitutive parts of systems and the otherwise unseen relays between them become suddenly apparent, and a pause of activity in which to notice, or be shocked by, the sudden absence of what was taken for granted. We can find this tendency especially present wherever paralysis appears as a figure to think about infrastructure, insurgence, and labor politics.1 It is there, for instance, in the language of Stephen Graham I cited before: “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.”2 Almost the exact same notion appears in David Nye’s book on blackouts and failures of the electrical grid where,

in contrast [to intentional blackouts during bombing campaigns], after 1965 a blackout demonstrated incompetence or malfunction. It did not hide an underlying order and purpose; it exposed an underlying disorder. It paralyzed the infrastructure and revealed technical failures and management miscalculations.3

Yet as this passage suggests, the blackout’s potential exposure of the hidden truth of a system—its miscalculations, mismanagement, and latent chaos—is historical, rather than absolute: in Nye’s words, “with each passing decade, more elements of the city, when deprived of power, became paralyzed parts of a vast broken machine.”4 This more is also not merely quantitative. It involves a history of experience and expectation, of the gradual subsumption of human activity not only into the abstractions that animate capital but also into the rhythms, timescales, and correspondences of that “vast machine” only revealed in the interval of paralysis, when it is “broken” and the elements are “deprived of power.” In other words, as those who live in cities become more and more familiar with, and dependent on, constant access to electricity and its seamless integration, the shock and potential revelation of their dependence becomes all the greater, and the “paralyzed parts” and their connections more “paradoxically” visible, when the lights go out, like a glow-in-the-dark diagram.

People illuminated by emergency lighting sit, sleep, and wander around Grand Central Terminal on November 9, 1965. Thousands were stuck at the terminal as trains lost power during rush hour. Photo: John Lent.

We can also find here a different but crucial aspect of thinking paralysis that I will follow out across this essay. Rather than a single and direct link of breakdown to insight, this is a full chain of paralysis, a sort of contagious and unwilled mimicry or transfer of freezing. In the blackout, the paralysis of a system’s expected function—i.e., not permanent damage but a suspension of the usual flow of information or energy—renders the individual parts paralyzed and unable to react to signals, while the users of that system find themselves caught in a sort of halted paralysis as well, that strange pause of dilated time where nothing works as it should. The call won’t go through, and our usual prostheses don’t respond.

Both Graham’s and Nye’s work have been hugely generative for my thinking, and I don’t disagree with how either of them characterizes the social (and especially military) effect of paralysis or the openings generated by these intervals of interrupted circulation and reaction. Yet I’ve been struck by just how commonplace it has become to automatically relate breakdown or stoppage to insight or visibility, as if temporary stasis generates a sudden recognition of links that cannot otherwise be seen in their usual motion—or, more plainly, as if the bare truth of things can only be seen when they stop moving. It’s therefore worth asking more seriously how, as a trope, paralysis frequently suggests this kind of revelation that skips over exactly that troubled middle space of disrupted exchanges that the trope itself highlights.

Although this breakdown/insight model is at work across a broad set of political and cultural conceptions, within the narrower frame of paralysis it is especially active when focused on moments of crisis and organized revolt or on a lived relation to technical systems and objects. For instance, it shapes a theory of crisis familiar to the history of Marxism (and a socialist imaginary more broadly), in which the breakdown of invisible paths of circulation and reproduction violently yokes seemingly disparate spheres and activities into the obvious totality to which they already belong.5 That same political register suggests a kind of dual education or uncovering, especially in the case of strikes, sabotage, or blockades. In contrast to what the reproduction of capital renders undetectable, the blunt material fact of the packages that don’t get delivered, the bananas that become a slick rot on the loading dock, and the toilets that don’t get cleaned, taken together, render their connections visible. However, this is mirrored by a different kind of revelation specifically directed at confronting bosses and states with how things grind to a halt when labor and maintenance are withdrawn.6

To be sure, these tactics are no mere symbolic gesture: blockading a port not only exposes reliance upon its traffic, but also exerts real financial pressure on those who profit most from its constant flowing. Yet although this is active in any strike or withdrawal of labor, for those who most fiercely denounced radical syndicalism, like the socialist John Spargo, specific efforts to bring about any widespread paralyses of production and circulation, such as a general strike, were a major strategic error for socialist organizing.7 For Spargo and his like-minded critics in the 1910s, the difference was not merely quantitative, as though the stasis just lasted longer or spread wider than a single-sector strike (or act of sabotage that adulterated efficiency).8 It was also qualitatively distinct in the way it betrayed common cause in favor of the dreadful, apocalyptic violence of breakdown—a lawless stasis in which the power of the working class is revealed as absolute, but only in its negative expression: “This social cataclysm is to take the form of the General Strike, when the proletariat paralyzes society by becoming motionless.”9 Here once again we can see that logic of chain reaction and contagious homology that marks how the trope of paralysis understands the effects of paralysis. In this case, though, it moves in the opposite direction from the version I noted in Nye. Rather than moving from the systemic breakdown of a network in towards the individual organism, this begins with a willful and collective self-paralysis, in which individuals all become “motionless” and refuse to do any of their waged activities. This stoppage then spreads out through the channels of production and circulation until society itself ceases to function. Unsurprisingly, Spargo wants none of it. Instead, he praises the correct socialist path of resolute and organized unions who, for instance, “cooperated with the police in maintaining order in the streets” and “were not attempting to paralyze society and to destroy the State,” rather than those who aim instead for “social cataclysm,” turning their back on “society” as well as their own humanity.10 However, as often happens with critics of radical possibility, Spargo hits on something vital in his hyperbolic denunciation. Because even if he rejects what he sees, he still correctly foregrounds a step taken by radical syndicalists like the Wobblies to use paralyzing tactics in order to go beyond the limited terrain of representation and negotiation familiar to mainstream conceptions of the political. This step took two key forms. First, it involved a significant challenge to an expected humanist pride in productivity or respectability within labor, and it thought instead about what can be gained by not just being a problem—or being tactically “motionless”—but also by seeing one’s own work as thoroughly embedded in a lived world of degraded and adulterated commodities, shoddy constructions, and swindling bosses. Second, particularly under the sign of sabotage, it asked what can be gained by not standing in the streets shouting to be recognized but instead routing one’s agency through the pipes below it and the wires above, to speak in infrastructure’s own paralyzing tongue.

2. That Authorless Friction

If the general strike as apocalyptic revelation gives us one especially amplified breakdown/insight dyad, the other context where it is especially present is linked to technicity. It manifests in a quite familiar form of thinking technical objects that sees their breakdown as generative of a reckoning with their fundamental materiality, qualities, and elements, as well as a sort of dawning recognition of the degree to which a seeming prosthesis has been fully integrated into absolute familiarity.11 The phone may be dead, but I tap its black mirror all the same in an involuntary gesture that outpaces any recollection that it won’t wake.

Joris Ivens, New Earth, 1933, film still.

However, unlike the model of the willful paralyses caused by strikes or sabotage, it is the innate frictions of technical objects or networks themselves that cause such objects to show what they are when they are broken, when they cease to vanish into the ubiquity of utility. In this, there is an echo of Martin Heidegger’s work on technology and the figure of the broken hammer (discernible for what it is only when broken), but I would qualify this through Yuk Hui’s particular framing of that figure, which shifts emphasis away from raw materiality. Rather, in “the example of the hammer, only when it comes to breakdown do we start realizing that the way we use a hammer is already inherited from our cultural and social history.”12 This qualification is vital for the most generative ways that the trope of paralysis can open onto constitutive links in the negative space of its interval. Because indeed, insofar as we think on the materials or elements at hand in the interval of paralysis, it is not as some raw material stripped of symbolic or social value, but through their operational sequence, their network of transformations and incorporations.13

My point is not that the breakdown/insight model is fundamentally wrong. Those paralyses can provide a certain kind of epistemic gap for asking questions about what commonly comes as second nature.14 At the same time, it would be a mistake to rely on such an interval or space as a meta-structure for critical work. For example, a default move within the frame of contemporary art over the past two decades: defunctionalized objects pulled out of usual circulation or infrastructural location appear to offer a kind of freezing and deictic insight, as if a hunk of undersea internet cable on a gallery floor confronts us with the materiality of communication. Yet a moment of paralysis, or even of the decoupling of the informational from its material substrate or mechanism, does not automatically generate the kind of critical or political thought one might want to follow from it. There’s a fantasy of an almost messianic clarity at work here, in which if only we could see things at a standstill, we would not only understand the built totality of capitalist relations, but also decide to refuse them.15 Historically, however, one would be hard-pressed to find such refusal to be the default reaction. Seen in its own light, the breakdown/insight circuit starts to appear more romantic than anything, a wish-structure of the fulfillment of political knowledge without the grinding work of building networks of support and antagonism that form a real counterpublic, to borrow Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt’s term.16

Against the idea that paralysis necessarily mobilizes critique, or provides a kind of instantaneous cognitive mapping, I think it’s worth pursuing at least three hitches or qualifications in that overly smooth transition between stoppage and knowledge. First, taking the cue of thinking like Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, we have to consider other kinds of network processes or circulatory flows that by no means reveal themselves when they are paralyzed or stopped.17 Indeed, they might only be tracked when they are operative. In this way, the idea that a breakdown will show us the contours of what hides in its movement cuts from the scene many of the most consequential forms of tracking and control that simply evade the clarity of broken exposure.18 A social analog to this can be found in the labors of reproduction and maintenance. While the blackout, in all its drama, has that paradoxical visibility of recognizing something as dramatically halted, many things don’t break down all at once, or even in a way that announces any breakdown at all.19 Dust doesn’t reach door-blocking snowdrift heights in a day and, as thinkers such as Lauren Berlant have pointed out at length, many elements of our lives involve things that get by without being optimal or even functional.20 In other words, what kinds of paralysis can even be noticed when they happen?

Second, picking up on a possible link between the scene from Ricardo Piglia’s novel Burnt Money I discussed in Part 1 and Nye’s reading of the blackout, if there is indeed a kind of epistemic confrontation in the interval of paralysis, it is one that is relentlessly negative, experienced as a kind of epistemic bereftness, a disorientation and loss of coordinates rather than a clarity of insght. In Nye, this has the distinctly historical character of being thrown by the paralysis of energy not back into a “premodern” mode of simple materials and some suddenly de-electrified dwelling, but rather into a space of experience that has already been historically negated.21 Nye writes that “by 1965, however, many New Yorkers regarded a blackout as a violation of the expected order of things. Yet it seemed an anomaly, without long-term implications, and the paralysis of that night became the occasion for a liminal moment.”22

That liminal moment can involve the strange sociality of the blackout, as well as allow for forms of illegal accumulation under the cover of darkness, but it is also what he refers to in an earlier essay on blackouts as an “anti-landscape” where we aren’t returned to where we once were, but rather plunged into a place where we can only be in crisis.23

Headlights light up Main Street, Rochester, New York during the November 1965 blackout. Photo: Staff file archive, Democrat and Chronicle. 

This points to a common criticism raised against those judged to politically overvalue or fetishize blockages and breakdowns, that they rely on a romanticized kind of spontaneism according to which a stoppage of normal flows creates an opening for radical collectivity to organically emerge—rather than a chaos or panic that can equally be an opening for the state to repressively reassert the status quo. Indeed, we can find a reckoning with this problem in Comment nous ferons la Révolution (How we will make the revolution), an underread 1909 novel (and playbook for an uprising) cowritten by Emile Pouget, the most influential early theorist of sabotage, with Emile Pataud.24 In the brilliantly titled fourth chapter, “QUE LES TÉNÈBRES SOIENT” (Let there be darkness), the authors detail a complete energy blackout during a growing general strike. They note that although in earlier strikes only “electric light had failed” and the gas lamps were still lit (“in reality the system of lighting that was usual a quarter of a century before”),

now, both gas and electricity failed at the same time. This was no half darkness! The sudden extinction of light made the darkness appear still thicker to unaccustomed eyes. The confusion was indescribable, and the nervousness of the population, who were already rudely shaken, reached a climax. Scared, perplexed folks, ran right and left, like a whirlpool, half mad.25

Yet rather than either fantasizing of the blackout as a moment of realization or condemning it as the kind of “terrorizing” Spargo details, Pataud and Pouget understand this as one small and indeed disorienting step in a slow process of revolution that will need to think past the incendiary or spectacular moments of paralysis and struggle and towards the minutiae of building new forms of relation and support. We can find something similar in arguably the most infamous book in recent decades to advocate for acts of paralysis, and the one that became most popularly associated with calls for sabotage, The Coming Insurrection. Rather than what critics might want to find—i.e., a reveling in breakdown or blockage as a nihilistic show of anti-societal force—there is instead a reckoning with exactly this question of the negativity of paralysis, and the processes that need to come in its wake:

Jam everything—this will be the first reflex of all those who rebel against the present order … But a blockade is only as effective as the insurgents’ capacity to supply themselves and to communicate, as effective as the self-organization of the different communes. How will we feed ourselves once everything is paralyzed?26

Third, and following from this, the polyvalence and undecidability of paralysis needs to be foregrounded. If paralysis seems to bring about more paralysis in a cascading chain from circuits to nervous systems, it also thwarts any easy sense of belonging to a recognizable political horizon. In the same way that the temporary halting of circulation does not necessarily generate critical insight into the ideologies and effects of its function, the space between accident and intention that paralysis spans has no de facto politics or allegiance. As I suggested in Part 1 of this essay, the historical and technical ground for paralysis is the increasingly tight coupling of networks, energy, and technical forms.27 Such a tight coupling brings about an increased capacity for concatenated and un-authored accidents that amplify through the system, a wire-gnawing squirrel in place of the butterfly that flaps its wings. It also generates a new possibility for intentional sabotage that mirrors accidents and routes one’s agency through them, cloaking intention in their forms to render culpability extraordinarily difficult. This is no new insight. As a French railway union organizer put it in 1895: “With two pennies-worth of a certain substance, used in the right way, we can make a locomotive unable to work.”28 The press seized on the apparent proximity of this to what might be labeled terrorism, and this capacity was not lost on early commentators on syndicalism’s uses of paralyzing tactics. With regard to how this amplification functions also through strikes, J. H. Harley writes that

the syndicalists very speedily saw in the advance of the modern organization of industry a means of working a general strike more successfully than in the ancient days. Your general strike did not need to be wholly general. There was no necessity that every worker of the country should be shepherded into the same syndicalist fold. Certain industries lie at the basis of modern industrial life. Paralyze the lines of communication and modern life is impossible. Cut off the supply of coal and society is in chaos.29

Nor is this limited to struggles that are primarily situated within the context of labor. In his 1976 study on guerrilla warfare, Walter Laqueur notes how,

as technical progress continued, society became more vulnerable to destruction. A single individual could spread alarm and confusion even by means of a telephone call about a bomb that had allegedly been placed in some vital place. This new power acquired by a few has, however, its limits; it could paralyze the state apparatus but it could not take over.30

However, we can’t restrict this capacity to insurgents, rebels, or those who must rely on cunning to turn the tables. Rather, this tight system of interchange also hides the concrete decisions and plans made by those who profit most from it. How? The naturalization of the grid, supply chain, or global financial market normalizes the idea of its inevitable glitches, even if, as Nye details, they are felt to be a dramatic loss of capacity rather than a usual part of its systemic flux.

When the power goes out, you’re struck by the sudden silence, the fridge no longer whirring, current not hissing in the outlets, by the things you hear without recognizing. But you also hear the wind of the storm and assume a fallen branch somewhere to be behind the blackout. In this way, the frictions of tight coupling, and their failures, provide a distinct cover. The problem becomes how to take seriously the persistence and consequences of that authorless friction while still refusing to normalize its effects as simply the way things are. Because if we do that, we fall into the trap of those who hide behind categories of “natural disaster” or “market turbulence,” of “margin of acceptable loss” or “unintended casualties of precision warfare,” all of which mask willful decisions to restrict or neglect, or to design and defend such systems in the first place.

3. New Earth

The most incisive and striking treatment of this question that I know comes in New Earth (Nieuwe gronden), a 1934 film directed by Joris Ivens.31 Like many of Ivens’s films of the same period, it centers on a detailed consideration of a technical process or system as well as the labor that goes into it. In this case, it is a decade-long project of draining, and then filling with soil, a large bay in the North Sea to turn it into farmable land. The bulk of the footage comes from one of his previously completed films, Zuiderzee (the name of the bay), which itself was edited together from leftover materials from We Are Building, a documentary made by Ivens between 1929 and 1930 about Dutch labor, commissioned by the Dutch Building Worker’s Trade Union to mark their twenty-fifth anniversary. Screening Zuiderzee for workers’ audiences in Russia, Ivens framed the film—and the reworked footage from it that comprises the first twenty-three minutes of New Earth—as an epic struggle with nature, one that “showed the Dutch people fighting against the sea—successfully fighting against a big natural obstacle.” Those audiences were receptive and found it their favorite of his films, in part because unlike some of the others that depict technical processes nearly decoupled from the humans who enact them, the audiences “were pleased to see more faces in the Zuiderzee film,” even if “they insisted that this was not enough” and “wanted to see how the workers who were building the dikes lived.”32

Joris Ivens, New Earth, 1933, film still.

Indeed, this tension between a technical marvel and a fine-grained attention to those who enact it runs through Zuiderzee and the first three-quarters of New Earth, with the montage doing almost exactly what one might expect for a project originally created to honor not only an engineering project but also the labor involved. It dwells on both in relatively equal measure (even if not to the satisfaction of the Russian audiences), switching between the quixotic and surreal process of filling in a sea—with the eventual reveal of waves of grain where waves of water once lapped—and a collection of bodies and machines at collective work, often filmed with oblique camera angles and perspective reminiscent of László Moholy-Nagy.33 Shots frame tight on steam shovels that tear at the sea floor, and muddy faces suddenly break into silent laughter. In one of the film’s singular moments, a line of workers each grip the wrist of the next, forming a lock to carry an enormous metal pipe across the newly exposed ground while the camera follows close behind, staring through the oculus of the pipe towards the cranes that lift the enormous structures into place.

The arc of the film is as one would predict, constructing a drama of struggle against the elements, shaped around the glacially slow process of draining and filling from start to finish, from the first scoops of undersea mud to the final victory, when the “final closure of the first great reclaimed area, the Vlieter, was made two minutes past one in the afternoon of May 28, 1932 … Ten thousand men, working in two shifts for ten years had conquered the new earth.”34 The film succeeds in transferring to a viewer this palpable sense of triumph at the achievement of this gargantuan task, drawing in even the skeptic when “the first harvest is shown, romantic and glorious, making one happy that at last the sea has been conquered and the New Earth is producing such wonders.” In his memoir, Ivens even remarks on the degree to which he could audibly detect this effect, judging by the way that “in every audience in any country where I have shown New Earth I can always hear a sigh of relief at the moment of the closing of the dam.”35

Joris Ivens, New Earth, 1933, film still.

But in that very moment, everything changes. As Ivens puts it: “Then the commentator sticks a pin into this happy inflated image: But the grain is not for food, but for speculation. There is too much grain and not enough work.”36 And for those who haven’t seen the film, it’s difficult to describe just how much you feel the pop and a sudden deflation when you hear these words, the air rushing all at once out of the Promethean promise of overcoming the sea and, along with it, the dire fact of hunger. Yes, the project was completed, the grain was planted and harvested, and we see it in its fecund bounty. It worked. What failed was the circulation of the grain to those who desperately need it, and not due to any lack of available ships or weevils in the wheat. Rather, as Ivens puts it,

the world had changed tremendously in those ten years and history provided a surprise dramatic conclusion, a third act. The natural ending of the film would have been the triumphant first harvest on the newly claimed earth. What actually happened was that the economic crisis threw thousands of men working on the project out of work and dumped the first triumphant harvest as one more “surplus” on a world market that was already attempting to solve its problems by burning coffee beans in Brazil and dumping grain from ships.37

In other words, to keep prices of grain high, the architects and beneficiaries of global commerce decide to torch it, in order to reduce supply.

It’s a brutal turn, and a true one, and the strength of New Earth is that even with this new knowledge of the sheer awful waste of effort and badly needed food during an international economic depression, Ivens gives no whiff of what has come to pass through the whole first part of the film. Instead, he keeps the technocratic optimism of Zuiderzee and the cinematic style to match, knowing full well how hard it is to avoid its infectious wonder. And then, when the actual fate of the grain is revealed, and how it will fatten pigs rather than be fed to the starving, the film pivots entirely, and hard, with its entire style dropping away and replaced by a wholly different furious, mocking, and jagged tone and form. Gone is the patient detailing of labor, and the slow rendering of an epic struggle to tame nature. Instead, the film adopts the mode of a radical newsreel, slamming together found footage, graphics, and reenactments: fields of wheat aflame, milk dumped into the sea, zigzagging stock-market charts, breadlines, headlines, tuxedo-clad oligarchs, throngs of demonstrators in the street, and the face of a hungry boy staring back at the camera.38 The narrator’s words are alternately plain and unrelenting—“31 million unemployed worldwide are starving”—and exclamatory and ironic: “We’re bursting with grain!”; “Coffee, vegetables, milk, coffee in the sea, in the fire, in the sea!” And in place of the playful, stirring, and upbeat orchestration that accompanied the whole first part of the film, there is now a ballad, scored by none other than Hans Eisler and with lyrics, written by Julian Ahrendt, that share much of the tone of Eisler’s collaborations with Bertolt Brecht.39 Sung in an overblown, almost drunk, and eventually frantic voice, it is bleakly and bitterly sardonic:

Throw half the harvest into the water
There’s a purpose to that, my boy!
This will be some winter, my boy!

Then it becomes increasingly fervent and apocalyptic:

They are throwing bread into the flames
They are throwing grain into the sea
When will the bag throwers
Throw those robbing fatcats down?
You see, that is strange, my boy!
You see, this will be some winter, my boy!
Like you’ll never again see in your life!

This ending is a formal surprise, to say the least, and Ivens astutely describes it as engaging the “continuity … used in telling a joke,” where “three-quarters of the story is told in an elaborate build-up to what seems to be a foregone conclusion,” where “we show a tremendous engineering work that conquered the sea, that is going to bring happiness and prosperity to everyone concerned and then we say, ‘But …’”40

If the ending is unexpected, what it details is not, because this is a disaster with no accident, a disaster that was planned explicitly to protect a rate of profit, and one that cannot be told in the language of tragedy or fate. New Earth indeed refuses that language, and is instead lucid and enraged in equal measure, with a tone and conviction I find all too rare. But it is so strong not only because of what it says about this intentional failure of circulation or its acid clarity in denouncing it, but because it transposes that shock and fury to form and style itself, stealing that sigh of relief and making the breath catch in lungs. To grasp the effects of a fully planned economic paralysis, the film manifests a paralysis of its own, a stylistic one, where the techniques that structured the major portion of the film show themselves unable to continue, unable to transmit the effects needed to grapple with the actual historical outcome.

Joris Ivens, New Earth, 1933, film still.

Ivens makes the striking comment that the “best medium that could possibly analyze and show vividly the strange and ‘logic’ [sic] turn in history was the film.”41 In Thomas Waugh’s detailed reading of New Earth in the context of Ivens’s trajectory, he suggests that we see this particular film itself as a sort of hinge film, one that bridges between two phases of Ivens’s career and two kinds of filmmaking. As Waugh writes, if it “was no longer possible for Ivens to affirm this vision of an epic universe devoid of class conflict in which the rational, goal-directed effort of workers was rewarded with victory,” then

films using an indirect, narrative form to recount for passive audiences the victories of labour would have to be replaced by films that assaulted and accused these audiences, which addressed them directly, exploding the myths of worker-society unity with the violent clash of images with images and with words.42

However, what needs to be stressed here is that New Earth does not simply do away with that “indirect, narrative form” and make the shift towards that “violent clash.” More specifically, it stages the failure of that form internal to itself. So if, as Ivens says, it will take film to deal with this cruel historical irony of the chaos that was no accident, I would add the caveat that it takes a film that breaks down and loses its ability to communicate, that has this yawning interval where its chosen symbolic mode can no longer match up with its materials. After all, what good is marveling at the ability to close one sea when another one will just get tainted with thousands of gallons of milk poured into it to keep prices high? What’s the point of labor’s heroic achievement over the elements when the wheat will be burned, and not even for heat? This will be some winter indeed.

Between the circulatory paralysis it depicts and the formal paralysis it enacts in that haunting caesura of “But …,” New Earth generates a third kind in the viewer, a freezing caused by the whiplash of its bristling animacy and frantic editing.43 The first time I saw the film, I felt riveted by the turn of the ending and its virulent negativity, the way that it held the punchline close and then let it all out like a storm, a fragmentary banshee chorus ironic and unforgiving. Like the burning of the money in Piglia’s novel, the realization of unfathomable waste induces a paralysis, here brought about by that disconnect between symbolic value and material fact, and by the incommensurability of what is done in the service of capital and what could be done in the service of lives dominated by it, and yet will not be done. But in New Earth, unlike in Burnt Money, that negativity is transposed out of the pause and into the violence of that social absurdity in its abhorrent bluntness, in that simple, lethal math that ends with bread being set aflame and not money. It is able to do this because it doesn’t remain in the cognitive space of the unbearable and unthinkable. It doesn’t just provide statistics of waste and hunger that can be scarcely fathomed, or images of those whose suffering lies behind those numbers. The film is keenly aware that such things can engender a different kind of paralysis, a political nullity of confronting what is too much, too global, too awful. In place of that, it builds up an explanatory structure and mode of reading the world, of chaining together actions and processes—and then it severs those links in front of us, in a shuddering halt that spans world, film, and watcher. Only then does it start to build sense and move again. If breakdown doesn’t necessarily lead to radicalization or insight, then New Earth comes the closest I’ve seen to occupying that middle space of paralysis, to drawing new routes and making them sear.

To be continued in “On Paralysis, Part 3”


The differences are too substantial for me to loosely analogize here, but I will note that a version of the breakdown/insight form of thinking is also active in popular conceptions about how climate chaos and extreme weather could or should bring about an immediate political reckoning with the urgency of stopping fossil fuel use. As I’ve written elsewhere, what goes missing in this is the way that imagery or footage often used to transmit such a reckoning—what Günther Anders referred to as “warning images”—is itself heavily aestheticized, producing a perverse visual pleasure in surreal sights of the burning jungle’s pink haze or the house flooded up to its second story. Such images move under the sign of what is terrible, and yet, particularly when reinforced by which ones get clicked and reposted, end up normalizing what they depict. See my essay “Noon as Night,” for steirischer herbst, gathered in A Pleasant Apocalypse: Notes from the Grand Hotel Abyss (Hatje Cantz, 2020).


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


When the Lights Go Out: A History of Blackouts in America (MIT Press, 2010), 70.


When the Lights Go Out, 81.


For a hugely influential text that advances this position, see György Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (MIT Press, 1968). In his account, during a crisis, the “unity of the economic process moves into reach,” in a way that was blocked during “so-called periods of normality” (in which the unity can be glimpsed from a “class-standpoint” but “the gap between appearance and ultimate reality” is too great to properly grasp). In this account, the crisis therefore provides a crucial interval in which to move beyond what he sees as the “grave theoretical error” of bourgeois thought, which accepts a false vision of different parts of society as independent, and in a way that is “in harmony with the interests of capitalism” (74–75). With regard to cultural practice and art, this question of the relation between totality and apparent fragmentation is central to the debates over realism and expressionism in which Lukács was a central interlocutor.


This is one of the reasons why although the trope of paralysis bears a particularly close relation to sabotage, it should not be absolutely aligned with it. Rather, as the sources I cited in Part 1 show, it also was a central concept used in talking about blockades, pickets, and strikes, and most markedly with the threat/promise of a general strike.


With Spargo, I want to be clear to not reduce his critique to a moral denunciation of tactics of paralysis, or even to a flat anti-syndicalism. He was a longtime organizer, and indeed, in the preface to his Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism (B. W. Huebsch, 1913), he notes his close proximity to those who he critiques at length: “For I have faced the same problems as my Syndicalist brother, shared his struggles, his hopes and his fears. For I am of the proletariat, bone of its bone and blood of its blood. Strike, lockout, blacklist, overwork, unemployment, homelessness and hunger are all familiar phenomena to me. I have borne them in my person. They have shaped and marred my life. No Syndicalist has seen more clearly the difficulties, obstacles and dangers of parliamentary Socialism. I have both preached and practiced sabotage. I have looked with awe and fear upon the long road of pacific evolution by political methods, and found my courage and faith taxed to the uttermost” (n.p.). We can read this statement as a rhetorical move or an earnest statement of someone trying their damnedest to win over comrades he sees as fundamentally mistaken. Regardless, although in this essay I am trying to detect what I see as the implicit contours of what is unacceptable to him, and the ways that this indicates a trespass of some of the grounding conditions of what is taken as even radical political activity, it’s crucial to also read this document and his stance as shaped by long process of actual organizing and debate over strategy. That said, in a way that’s telling for a distrust of the possibilities of proletarian self-organization (and for his eventual drift to the right), he insists that one of the problems with teaching sabotage is that people will then sabotage your organization too: “Teach men and women in the labor movement to practice sabotage in the fight against their employers and it will not be long before they will practice sabotage within their own organizations to obtain factional or personal ends. Union men who practice sabotage against the employer to gain the ends of the union will sooner or later practice sabotage within the union to gain their own ends. A contempt for the will of the majority is developed, for ‘sabotage is peculiarly the weapon of the rebel minority’” (174–75). What goes unspoken here is the prospect that this may be one of the only ways to register dissent with unions which themselves can be indifferent to dissenting opinions.


Spargo’s critique of sabotage is central to his attack on revolutionary syndicalism, but it has a different tenor: he argues that it “destroys the moral force of the proletariat and unfits (sic) it for the great struggle. It weakens the sense of class solidarity already developed. It places the crucial and critical events of the struggle once more in the hands of individuals, not of the mass” (Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism, 173). In short, the core issue here is how it disrupts the way in which individual and collective action are understood to interface and the way that collective action is expected to appear as if collective, with a consequent prioritization of certain kinds of organizing.


Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism, 85.


Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism, 123. I would put Spargo’s reckoning with this in dialogue with a very different enemy of insurrection, so to speak, Carl Schmitt, whose reading of class politics in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy also captures a crucial aspect that has been anathema to more mainstream socialist or labor politics for much of the last century and a half. Schmitt writes that in the process of revolutionary organizing and a communist horizon, “the proletariat can only be defined as the social class that no longer participates in profit, that owns nothing, that knows no ties to family or fatherland, and so forth. The proletarian become the social nonentity. It must also be true that the proletarian, in contrast to the bourgeois, is nothing but a person. From this it follows with dialectic necessity that in the period of transition he can be nothing but a member of his class; that is, he must realize himself precisely in something that is the contradiction of humanity—in the class.” As for Spargo, for Schmitt this is a situation to be avoided, although for significantly different reasons. Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (MIT Press, 1988), 65.


This is one of the aspects central to the paralysis of networks and infrastructures as a military tactic, including cyberwar: there are not only the often disastrous material consequences of that lack of access to what is needed but also the cognitive disarray of lacking the systems that have become second nature.


Yuk Hui, “A Phenomenological Inquiry on the Emergence of Digital Things,” What Does a Chameleon Look Like?: Topographies of Immersion (Halem Verlag, 2011), 348. Hui’s reading of this aligns to a degree with what Adam Kotsko realized in terms of his pedagogy, in a blog post about the shifts in how he came to understand this example: “The actual point of the broken hammer example is to give us access to the world as such. When I confront a broken hammer, I don’t immediately reflect on the raw materials (except insofar as they might account for its brokenness, its unsuitability for its purpose)—instead, I reflect explicitly on the network of purposes to which the hammer belongs.” “The Broken Hammer,” An und für sich (blog), April 30, 2014 .


My reference here is to the operational sequence (la chaîne opératoire) as theorized by André Leroi-Gourhan, which names the circuit of the processes enacted on and through a material that brings it not just into use but, as Hui suggests, into a familiarity of the already inherited and already coded. I think another useful touchpoint among theories of design and technics comes from Bernhard Siegert, through his account of “cultural techniques” (Kulturtechniken), which involve considering the complicated ways that symbolic functions often follow from, and then get dislocated from, a specific technical and yet always also cultural practice. For instance, he reads the practice of ploughing as follows: “Ploughing can be a symbolic act as well. If, as ancient sources attest, ploughs were used to draw a sacred furrow to demarcate the limits of a new city, then this constitutes an act of writing in the sense of Greek graphé. To plough is in this case to engage in symbolic work because the graphein serves to mark the distinction between inside and outside, civilization and barbarism, an inside domain in which the law prevails and one outside in which it does not.” Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Fordham University Press, 2015), 12.


See the scene from Ricardo Piglia’s 1997 novel Burnt Money mentioned in Part I of this essay.


I’m reminded here of San Michele Aveva un Gallo, a 1972 film by the Taviani brothers, in which a group of anarchists “free” a small Umbrian town, and throw the property documents out the courthouse window and set it aflame, like the money in Piglia’s novel, and fly a red and black flag—only to find that the village isn’t so sure what they think about this and if they wanted to be freed in the first place.


Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Sphere (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).


I find this book useful now precisely because it emerges from reckoning with an earlier moment of digital networks, two decades back before all its terms and operations became so ubiquitous.


Although, these also need to be read as part of a wider context of calibration and monitoring that generates what AbdouMaliq Simone—reading Luciana Parisi—frames as the “uncertain betweens” of algorithmically shaped urban infrastructure and communications, ones that teeter on the edge of always exceeding control. Simone, “Afterword: Come On Out, You’re Surrounded: The Betweens of Infrastructure,” City 19, no. 2–3 (2015).


Here I would also include work that focuses on the logic of care and the threat of disrepair/failure that looms behind the suspension of unrecognized and unexpected maintenance. See the work of Shannon Mattern, for instance, particularly where she picks up on Steven Jackson’s “Rethinking Repair” (from 2014): Mattern, “Maintenance and Care,” Places, November 2018 . That said, I’d note that there is a widespread tendency—one not present in Mattern’s lucid work—to treat the revelation of, or attention to, “care” itself as an automatically political insight, in ways that have become especially visible and acutely banal in contemporary art institutions and discourses.


Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011).


This is one of my most-hated tropes, one that verges easily into a green-fascist imaginary of a return to the purity of earthly bonds. For a weapons-grade version of this kind of historical temporality and the fetishization of “going backward,” see the title credits of Wall-E, which I wrote about in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse.


When the Lights Go Out, 132.


“Are Blackouts Landscapes?” American Studies in Scandinavia 39, no. 2 (2007).


The English version has the far less compelling title Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth, which they comically chalk up to an act of sabotage itself: “At baptism, our book changed its name. This was the fault of our publisher, who, in presenting its title page to the printer’s ink—the baptismal font for books—shamelessly committed an act of sabotage.” Pataud and Pouget, Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth (New International, 1913), xviii.


The excellent passage continues: “The intense blackness that enwrapped the city was pierced here and there by bright gleams. It was the glimmer of those establishments, which making their own light,—electricity or acetylene,—were not affected by the strike. Now the pulsations of the great city began to get slower; it seemed as though the darkness which invaded it was an omen of death. The theatres and all other places were emptied in a roar of conversation, and amidst exclamations which told of anxiety and panic” (37).


The text continues: “Looting stores, as in Argentina, has its limits; as large as the temples of consumption are, they are not bottomless pantries. Acquiring the skills to provide, over time, for one’s own basic subsistence implies appropriating the necessary means of its production. And in this regard, it seems pointless to wait any longer. Letting two percent of the population produce the food of all the others—the situation today—is both a historical and a strategic anomaly” .


My reference here is to Charles Perrow, who in his research impelled by the Three Mile Island disaster understands tight coupling as generative of “multiple failures” resulting when “different parts of a system are quite dependent on each other.” Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Basic Books: 1984), 8.


Timothy Mitchell offers an excellent gloss on this quote: “A coal-fired steam locomotive could deliver three megawatts of power (about 4,000 horsepower), or thirty times the motive power of the first reciprocating steam engines of a century or so earlier. The new effectiveness of sabotage derived from this vast concentration of kinetic energy in a mechanism that a single operator could disable.” Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2013), 22–23.


Syndicalism (T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1912), 37. Crucially, this is immediately followed by the turn to sabotage: “But now the invention of fresh weapons of offence was a paramount preoccupation in the mind of the workers. ‘Sabotage’ became a name of dread in France.”


Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical and Critical Study (Routledge, 2017), 324.


A copy of it with English subtitles can be found here .


Joris Ivens, The Camera and I (International Publishers, 1969), 57. He notes also that the film was itself bought by the Soviet state for distribution, two hundred prints.


Ivens has a fascinating account of how he envisioned the multiple cameras used to shoot the film’s footage, which was subsequently edited together. Each camera, he writes, embodied and was “emotionaly attached to a different element,” each of which struggle against the others: the “sea-camera,” the “land-camera,” and the “man-camera.” The Camera and I, 95.


The Camera and I, 94.


The Camera and I, 96.


The Camera and I, 97.


The Camera and I, 94.


It is in the retelling of this that Ivens details an episode I’ve found hugely important, that of his collective and informal training in montage by “borrowing” commercial newsreels that he was in charge of (in his role organizing film programs). I describe this in an interview available on e-flux Education .


The tone bears a striking echo too of Kluge’s Biermann-Film (1983), another film that takes what might have originally been just leftover footage and makes something furious and dizzying from it.


The Camera and I, 95.


The Camera and I, 95.


The Conscience of Cinema: The Works of Joris Ivens, 1926–1989 (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 163–64.


Waugh notes a fascinating formal detail that lies behind this feeling: the relation to synchronization and coming out of synch, and the way that at one “point in the climactic closing sequence, the score’s rhythm is patently faster than that of the cutting, creating a feeling of urgency and tension.” Conscience of Cinema, 170.

Disruption, War & Conflict, Capitalism, Film
Accidents & Disasters, Money & Finance, Negative Anthropology
Return to Issue #143

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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