Police Eyes: A Conversation with Joshua Clover

November 29, 2013  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

“Polis is eyes.” — Charles Olson

As I think I told you, I read your article “White Wigs, Black Masks: On Pop Surveillance” in The Nation and thought how good it would be to talk to the author, before glancing up to see it was written by a person I know. So I am very pleased to be able to communicate about this and thought we could try to expand some of its logic. Since the time your article was published, Germany, France, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil have discovered they are targets of US surveillance; Oakland just passed a bill to build a huge system to surveil the city, to be complete by this summer.

Your piece creates an equation: on one side, Andy Warhol’s pop art aesthetic of “absolute appearance,” on the other, the black mask of protest. You say:

Thus we might come to understand the tactic of the black bloc, which has achieved such infamy these last years, as itself a kind of pop culture. Not because those who don the anonymizing balaclavas are famous, or believe in a struggle in the realm of images, but because this is an inevitable position within the universalized fame of surveillance. It is Warhol’s wig in negative. From the moment that daily life becomes a screen test, the black mask is inevitable.

Here is the link to the piece:


Your phrase “the universalized fame of surveillance” is elegant, and suggests a historical arc in which our panoptic, neoliberal moment takes flower in the sixties while Warhol’s camera transforms downtown personae into superstars, and the vapid posture of his artwork faces back to consumer culture. What’s striking are the converse images used to explain the twin eras: white/black, persona/anonymity, positive/negative. The equation bumps right up against the problem described in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Protest is many things, but also a form of “appearance” — coming to the democratic agora, making one’s own worldview known. Within a political system premised on representation and overtaken by representations (including representations of protest), is the black mask of your article against representation? Is it bringing the failures of representation into Rancière’s realm of the sensible?

I myself am not very interested in protest, at least as you seem to mean it here, precisely because it is a politics of appearance. By this I do not simply mean that it takes place in the arena of the spectacular image, though it does. I mean that it seeks to win gains via moral suasion: to render visible a forgotten or concealed wrong of the world, that some imagined audience might suddenly recognize it and, in an upwelling of love for justice, or guilt, or anger, make it right. Artists tend to like these politics because it’s very flattering to them, the idea that a moving presentation might change the world. I don’t really think that’s how revolution happens.

Perhaps that’s how some small changes happen, in certain conditions — within the great accumulation of the postwar boom, it seemed like moral suasion could play some role in a redistributive politics, a politics in which the dispossessed might be granted slightly more access to social wealth. But these gains — most notably in the Great Society and the expansion of social programs — would prove temporary, like a layer of fog laid atop the hills. Beneath the fog is the absolute obduracy particular to capital: its character as a set of compulsions that force themselves just as inescapably on the capitalist as the proletariat. When the mist clears away, we see the aspect of capital that cannot be moved by any politics of appearance, by any protest. Capital must expand to keep being capital. It must take a certain share of the social surplus and return it to its own circuits. No amount of discourse can change this fact.

And history has offered irrefutable testimony in this regard. Here in California, the 1978 “tax revolt,” following on directly from the end of the Long Boom five years earlier, registers with pristine clarity that the age of social redistribution has ended; there isn’t enough surplus for such politics any more.

A politics of appearance is always a politics of redistribution. This is evident even in your brief gloss of Warhol: his obsession with the transcendental flatness of looking is, just as you say, a set of ideas about “consumer society.” But I have no interest in critiquing consumer society. No amount of change in consumption habits would change the exploitation and immiseration in the production and reproduction processes. Redistributive politics, anti-consumerist politics, these are just the ethics of liberals.

Which brings us to Rancière. He too, in his nuanced philosophical way, cleaves to a politics of distribution. He wants to redistribute things other than money: “a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution.” Distribution, participation — these are keywords of social democracy, however much I like Rancière’s clarity, his first book, his hatred of the police. But two things, perhaps already made clear: one, independent of my political commitments, we are not in a situation where the politics of social democracy have any possibility, whether they are desirable or not. Two, I’m a communist, not a social democrat. I believe in the end of the value form. Which sounds abstract but it’s quite concrete: the severing of any link between how much labor one contributes to society and how much access one has to the social store. That’s not the goal of communism, it’s the definition.

It is tempting to use “aestheticized” as a stand-in for leveled, rendered undifferentiated, as a code for disempowered and irrelevant. I tend to think of the aesthetic as always having positive terms, always on the side of presence, appearing. While it renders everything as form, material to be reconstructed and refigured, this rendering is made possible by an inherent love for “what is,” by a positivizing gaze. In this case, “what is” is the overtake of presence by representation, so much that anything which precedes the image threatens to recede. Within that context, let’s talk about what the black bloc does. As a protest tactic, the black bloc is both an actual necessity — masks are worn for anonymity, tear gas protection, and to be recognized by those who do not want to be or cannot be involved in violence — and a choreography that leverages a more organized, unified presence at protests. If the sixties were about bending the politics of representation toward leftist aims, this tactic embodies a pure, active antagonism. I’ve been toying with a consideration of Rancière’s sensible in terms of a class structure. The realm of the sensible is, after all, social like all realms, and follows the same logics. This is where antagonistic or revolutionary energy may become useful: in its energy to break into the conversation without invitation.

I don’t start from ontology, from presence and absence, from “what is.” I start from a sense of historical transformation, from the recognition that the given world is an expression in time of struggles and forces that are constantly in motion, pushing against each other, changing each other, sometimes bringing the new into equally temporary existence. There is no position that is not part of an antagonism, that is not within the dialectical unfolding of history.

I’m not sure what this has to say about black bloc tactics. Obviously it is a choice people make, to take part in a black bloc. But I hoped to suggest something else beyond or before this. The article is painfully brief: it’s sort of an oddity that an openly anti-state communist can have a column at The Nation, and if it comes with a limit, it’s not from the editor or publisher, but simply from what is sayable in 900 words. But what I hoped to indicate was that the “voluntarist” aspect of the black bloc, as something that coalesces as an act of will undertaken by people free to do so, is incomplete. It is a necessary, inevitable outcome of the regime of appearance which unites Warhol, drones, and the NSA. Our hope, one I’m sure we share, is that the black bloc is not conversational, because fuck the conversation. But we know this is the disingenuous position of faux-radicals like Chris Hedges, who can’t stop seeing it as unpopular. He gets that it has entered into popular culture, and has mistaken that (wilfully, out of his own hypocritical pacificsm) for its internal logic. The internal logic of the black bloc is not that of a media strategy.

But that doesn’t make black blocs effective. It just makes them explicable within a historical context as a necessary phenomenon. We are closer to agreement in the phrase “pure, active antagonism.” But of course that antagonism does not move toward getting better at smashing windows or cameras. That is a real limit. It wants to move toward the condition of being numerous, so much so that masks become unnecessary, at which time we will see that the black bloc comprises neither “outside agitators” nor some specially privileged bunch of white boys — as the dovetailing stories of right media right and left counterrevolutionaries have it — but is everyone. And all those faces, women and men and others, my friends and strangers — their appearance will not be the triumph of the regime of visibility, of the religion of transparency, but its total and crushing defeat.

I am curious about the use of the aesthetic by neoliberalism. One sees this clearly for instance in New Urbanism, gentrified city spaces too expensive for any except those who abide by the logic of the suburb. I think of anti-crime light design in cities that corrals certain people in and out of certain areas, the “natural view” from the ubiquitous glass towers of Vancouver, the specular beauty of San Francisco and its use by the tourism industry, the ubiquitous transformation of the city into aesthetic space, which then becomes capitalized space, and thus collapses the lived distinction between the aesthetic and the capitalized. I think about the extensive surveillance ordinance just passed in Oakland. You write, “The cameras would not look at us because we were famous; we would be famous because the cameras looked at us.”

I was wondering if we could also try: The cameras would not look at us because we were destitute; we would be destitute because the cameras looked at us. Before we even get as far as police cameras, we have Facebook, mining our data to optimize our consumption. You say, “Pop as worldview, as the baseline experience of expecting always to appear, provides an opening for the remaking of public space, private space, political space.” Could you say more about this?

No. But I really like what you’ve said here!

Writer Jasper Bernes says, “Occupy emerges out of the flow of images of revolt (and languages of revolt) which cross our screens. . . . The consequence, however, is that some large faction within Occupy comes to believe that its destiny lies within this flow of images . . . following a logic of exhibition and publicity.” My worry was different — that Occupy could be overcome by the symptoms of the very problem it protested (symptoms: separation, alienation, objectification, lack of social fabric / problem: capitalism) by getting represented on the nightly news. My awareness of the camera was more focused on its potential for distancing and flattening. In “no demands,” I saw the history of feminist resistance: the Riot Grrl refusal to talk to the media, and before that, the Second Wave reworking of female representation. Craig Owens writes:

Some [feminist artists] refuse to represent women at all, believing that no representation of the female body in our culture can be free from phallic prejudice. Most of these artists, however, work with the existing repertory of cultural imagery . . . because feminine sexuality is always constituted in and as representation. . . . It must be emphasized that these artists are not primarily interested in what representation says about women; rather, they investigate what representation does to women. [1]

I don’t think you and Jasper are saying such different things. His point is elegantly simple: in that Occupy succeeded (inasmuch as it did) because of the dissemination of certain images, mostly the images of people being brutalized by cops, it was all too easy to believe that it was a struggle over images — one that would be won by whoever projected the most persuasive set of appearances. So he’s talking about the mistaken lesson learned from the appearance on the news that you worry about; these are different moments in a single unfolding.

The refusal to make demands is actually quite an old one. [2] But you’re right to point to seventies feminism, I think. Not so much for its politics of representation and refusal of same, but for the abolitionist aspect. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James write, “The working class family is the more difficult point to break because it is the support of the worker, but as worker, and for that reason the support of capital. On this family depends the support of the class, the survival of the class — but at the woman’s expense against the class itself. The woman is the slave of a wage-slave, and her slavery ensures the slavery of her man. Like the trade union, the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he and she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial.” This is from “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,” for me one of the most powerful revolutionary documents. I think this insistence on the abolition of the bourgeois family and finally of class and gender as a unified struggle is salutary. And I am not sure it has much to do with representation or its refusal.

Let’s talk about Pussy Riot. First, I want to assert that their action in the church was reproduced everywhere because of the penalty it aroused. It was a live action. You say:

It was scarcely a bid for invisibility, however. “Punk Prayer” was entirely invested in appearance, albeit of a different kind. . . . It reserves some skepticism for Pussy Riot, for the global fame of attractive, camera-ready rebels, and how appearance was on their side in a way that it will not be for the subjects of your average stop-and-frisk.

But their action was not a bid for invisibility, it was a part of performance art tradition. I read in an interview with Pussy Riot that the gesture was “because language was abandoned as effective in a lawless, corrupt Russia, and only a visual gesture could be effective in communicating.” I think of the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskya. I deeply question performativity, the iterative gesture, exactly for what we are seeing play out here: it lives under the sign of the scapegoat. But the “subject of your average stop-and-frisk” is not performing, he is already inscribed via appearance inside the logic of the law. We are on two entirely different registers here. Nonetheless, Pussy Riot had everything to lose (their children) and still did it. I think you are talking here about the privilege to have the choice to make art at all, but I worry also that what is absent is a full account of how the female is already always trapped within the realm of the aesthetic.

No, I don’t mean to be talking about the privilege to make art. I am talking about knowing that your encounter with the police, even if it is inevitable, especially if it is inevitable, can be leveraged into a mediagenic political phenomenon. I can easily imagine a fifteen-year old black kid wanting that: wanting to make the violence he endures for attempting to act as a somewhat free human be seen, registered, taken seriously. But he knows there is little chance of this. Pussy Riot knew something else, and decided to make a certain maximal use of it. I loved it. As I suggested elsewhere, it’s much easier for bourgeois poets like myself to project themselves into the Pussy Riot role — the artist repressed for their heroic art. I agree that if you want to identify as an artist, you should be figuring out what it would take to get arrested.

I am wondering about the flipside of invisibility, illegibility. What about refusing to speak? Refusing to write? I think of George Oppen. I think of Conceptualism in writing (that is, the handful of poetic practices that eschew interiority and self-expression to make textual gestures that evoke a Warholian presence). I think of Lawrence Weiner’s early piece that subtracted a square from the gallery wall, and how that led to his subtraction of the object altogether, leaving only language. Craig Owens on Derrida: “that which exceeds, ‘transgresses the figure of all possible representation,’ may ultimately be none other than . . . the law.” Heidegger discusses the gigantic or incalculable (that which is not able to be seen) as casting a shadow around all forms. I think this means that wherever the unrepresentable prevents a worldview from forming, it is basically policed back into representation. It seems the precariat, living in ways small and large outside of the individual rights promised by representative democracy, evokes the law, even as the law is what creates it.

Well, you know how this goes. You’re going to say Heidegger, Derrida, representation, law. I’m going to say Marx, Luxemburg, material struggle, the value form. We don’t need Bartleby, we need Leila Khaled.

Edward Snowden told an interviewer that in hiding, he would pull a large red hood down over his head and laptop. As an alternative to the black mask, what do you think of the large red hood?

Wouldn’t that slow you down?


Coney Island at noon, Saturday, July 5, 1942


1. Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983).

2. More by Joshua on “no demands”:  http://zinelibrary.info/files/We_Are_Many.pdf.

Joshua Clover is the author of two books of poems, The Totality for Kids (University of California Press, 2006), and Madonna anno domini (1997), and two books of cultural criticism. He works at the intersection of poetics and critical theory. He is also a widely published critic and journalist; currently he writes a column for The Nation, Pop & Circumstance. He is a professor at the University of California, Davis, and recently co-organized the Poetry and/or Revolution conference.



Joshua Clover is the author of two books of poems, The Totality for Kids (University of California Press, 2006), and Madonna anno domini (1997), which was chosen by Jorie Graham to receive the 1996 Walt Whitman Award.

About his most recent collection, Judith Butler has said: “In this brilliant volume, the fragmented world of a late and lost modernity has its own moving and lucid affect, its forms of aliveness. We encounter here an enormous clarity of language in the service of a poetics that brilliantly queries our historical moment in and as form.”

Clover’s work has been anthologized in American Poets in the 21st Century and American Poetry: Next Generation, among others, and his poems have been chosen three times for inclusion in the annual Best American Poetry series. He is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Clover is also a widely published critic and journalist, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and the poetry editor for the Village Voice Literary Supplement. His contribution to the Modern Classics series for the British Film Institute, The Matrix, was published in 2005. He is also the author of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (2009).

Clover is an associate professor of English literature and critical theory at the University of California, Davis. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/240#sthash.jhrje6In.dpuf

1 Comment

  1. JdP Says:

    Thanks for posting this!

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