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Re: <nettime> influences
Dan S. Wang on Thu, 26 Aug 2004 17:11:45 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> influences

> I am interested in how people on this list have their
> activism influenced by intellectuals such as Michael
> Hardt, Antonio Negri and Slavoj Zizek?

I read Empire in a rush about a year ago in preparation for a paper I was
writing. I found myself not wanting it to end. I can't really say it changed
my approach to activism. Rather, the ideas and analysis contained in that
book mostly reinforced my existing outlook on activism: ie that concerning
oneself with a number of different issues (but often times addressing them
through the medium of a very specific and particular campaign), being
comfortable with a variety of tactics, and taking both long and short term
perspectives into account, is not a bad thing at all. That's the way most
activists I know work anyway, at least the ones who don't burn out. Some of
them seem to fight the tendency, so I've been recommending the book to
activists because it articulates so well the strengths of multi-centric
democratic movements. People influenced by contemporary anarchism,
especially it seems, find this book affirming. Not that there is a lot of
prescriptive theory; sometimes it just feels good to be told in an
intellectually authoritative language that we are much more powerful and
effective than we think.

You could say I'm a believer. I think the book actually lived up to the

BUT...I also promised myself that the next time Hardt and Negri were
mentioned on this list I would voice this little joint that's been bugging

On p 207 in the Counter-empire intermezzo where they're talking about the
International Workers of the World as a model of a continually moving,
immanent political force, they drop this labor history factoid about the
IWW's "Wobblies" nickname:

'The two accepted stories of the derivation of the name "Wobbly" illustrate
these two central characteristics of the movement, its organizational
mobility and its ethnic-linguistic hybridity: first, Wobbly is supposed to
refer to the lack of a center, the flexible and unpredictable pilgrimage of
IWW militancy; and second, the name is said to derive from the
mispronunciation of a Chinese cook in Seattle, "I Wobbly Wobbly."'

What??? A Chinese cook in Seattle doing some chinglish massacre on "IWW"
gave the union members their nickname? Web investigation turns up this IWW
site, which runs through the stories and has the good sense to admit the
possibility of stereotyped speech patterns. The L sound is singled out as
the problem, as unpronounceable by the Chinese guy. While it might be true
that the Fukienese or Cantonese chinglish is weak on the L's, I must point
out that "wobbly" also has an L in it. So....?

The Chinese cook theory may make for a good story, but I also think Hardt
and Negri could have elaborated a bit on how bits of contaminated speech are
often the entry point of an actor marginal in relation to powerful
protagonists. And that this entry does not always present itself
contestationally. Maybe the authors felt that the tensions and pitfalls of
hybrid language are communicated in the quoted passage, but still, being a
Chinese restaurant brat myself, I'd love for it to be spelled out.

Now all that by itself wouldn't be worth mentioning, except later I
encountered another peculiar and slightly more annoying offhand remark, this
time about "posse." When on p 408, as they're getting into the Renaissance
notion of the posse as the social formation most suited to the kind of
resistance they hope for, they must mention but then completely dismiss the
African-American hiphop appropriation of the concept and formation:

'Contemporary US rap groups have rediscovered the term "posse" as a noun to
mark the force that musically and literarily defines the group, the singular
difference of the postmodern multitude. Of course, the proximate reference
for the rappers is probably the posse comitatus of Wild West lore, the rough
group of armed men who were constantly prepared to be authorized by the
sheriff to hunt down outlaws. This American fantasy of vigilantes and
outlaws, however, does not interest us very much. It is more interesting to
trace back a deeper, hidden etymology of the term....'

Again...what??? Of course, the key word in the dis above is "probably," as
in, Hardt and Negri probably don't what they are talking about here. I've
never heard rappers talk about posses in "Wild West" terms. Not even the
wild west-ers Crucial Conflict! My theory is that the hiphop appropriation
of "posse" grows pretty naturally out of the crew/squad formations that
gather around group music creation, and that in the ultra competitive world
of the emerging rap artist, a measure of group self-valorization is a pretty
handy thing. Given the long history of African-American creativity in social
formation (beginning with highly plastic and incredibly resilient family
structures that survived and adapted under the near-holocaust conditions of
slavery) in response to sociopolitical conditions, I fail to see how the
hiphop posse is less rich in meaning than what Hardt and Negri outline as
their concept of the multitudinous posse. At the very least, I think they
need to admit that American rappers aren't simply play-acting their cowboy
fantasies. Jesus!

So, even as I recommend the book to friends and fellow activists, I am also
anxious to find out what they think of the book, and particularly if they
notice these two missteps. Thus far, I haven't found anybody bothered to the
degree that I am. But nonetheless I now harbor the slightest of suspicions:
that when it comes to details of popular culture, and particularly of
minority origin, these guys just might be clueless--to the degree that they
will write commentary without knowing that their credibility may suffer. (At
least in my book.)

Dan w.

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