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PRINT July/August 2020

ON THE VERGE

Protest following the death of George Floyd, Washington, DC, May 31, 2020. Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters.

APRIL 23, PARIS

IT’S HARD TO SAY HOW IT STARTED, whether the beginning of this revolution was the first #MeToo hashtag or the 1975 occupation of Lyon’s Saint-Nizier Church by some one hundred sex workers, or if we should cite as the origin point the moment when African American feminist Sojourner Truth stood up at a convention of white women in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 and resoundingly demanded, “Ain’t I a woman?”—thereby laying claim to the freedom and voting rights of racialized women for the first time in history. It depends on whether you see things from an individual or cosmic perspective, a national or planetary one, and on whether or not you feel you are actively involved in a history of resistance that precedes you and will continue after you. But even if we can’t locate the exact moment when a process of collective emancipation begins, we can feel the vibration it produces in the bodies through which it passes. No single narrative can contain such a process. What’s particular about ecological, transfeminist, and antiracist movements is the multiplication of voices, the articulation of heterogeneous sequences, the plurality of languages.

Just a few months ago in France, the oldest and most rancid of patriarchal-colonial empires (and my home), we were on the verge of mobilizing all that accumulated energy of resistance and struggle in the launching of a new transfeminist and decolonial revolutionary cycle. Twenty years ago, the collective Tiqqun,* gurus of the radical left, said that the young girl was the central figure of the consumerist domestication of contemporary capitalism, at once the model citizen and the body that best incarnated the new physiognomy of neoliberalism. Under the rubric young girl, Tiqqun included the supposedly consumerist queer and the racialized and aimless stereotypical resident of the French banlieue (how to even envision the displacement between these figures without falling into homophobia and racism!). They imagined “the young girl” as the product of high rates of oppression and a strong degree of complaisant submission, which inevitably produced little if any political consciousness. Our Tiqqun friends did not predict that it would be precisely these groups—the young girls, the gays, the trans people, and the racialized denizens of the banlieue—that would lead the next revolution.

Sex workers occupy Saint-Nizier Church, Lyon, June 2, 1975. Photo: Alain Voloch/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

One day, without any warning to the gurus of the Left, to the patriarchs or the bosses, raped young girls began outing their rapists, throwing open the closet of sexual assault and harassment, as the #MeToo movement, founded years earlier by Tarana Burke, went viral. There were archbishops and dads, teachers and CEOs, doctors and trainers, movie directors and photographers. At the same time, people subject to gender and race violence rose up everywhere: trans, lesbian, intersex, and antiracist movements; movements defending the rights of people with diverse cognitive and functional abilities, racialized workers in insecure jobs, sex workers of all genders, adopted children stripped of their names and pasts, and more. In the midst of that whirlwind of insurrections, the César Awards (the French Oscars) this past February became the televised transfeminist and decolonialist storming of the Bastille. In the lead, actress Aïssa Maïga denounced the institutional racism of cinema. When they gave the best director award to an absent Roman Polanski (the rapist is never there; the rapist has no body), another actress, Adèle Haenel, got up, turned her back on the patriarchs of cinema, and left, along with filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Two days later, Virginie Despentes, aka subcomandanta King Kong, joined Maïga, Haenel, et al. and, condemning French president Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal reforms as complicit with the politics of oppression, both sexual and racial, declared a general strike among subjugated minorities: “From now on, we get up and we walk out.”

Aïssa Maïga speaking at the 45th César Awards ceremony, Salle Pleyel, Paris, February 28, 2020. Photo: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters.

And we got up and we left by the thousands, right up to the protest on March 7, the eve of International Women’s Day. We went into the streets of Paris and the night became a gathering of techno-witches persecuted by the police. But neither the police nor the tear gas nor the rain could spoil the insurrection. Never had I seen a more beautiful march: grandmothers and granddaughters, queer and straight dissidents, rebels of all genders, cis and trans people, African-European, Arabs and antiracist white people, orally speaking people and sign-language-speaking people, walking people and people in wheelchairs, migrants, blue-collar workers, sex workers. We were no longer speaking about whether or not to go and see Polanski’s little movies. We were speaking about revolution.

Yes, even though you may not have known it, we were on the verge of a transfeminist decolonial uprising; we had gathered our commandos and, as the Zapatistas say, we had “managed our rage.” But all that was a few days before Covid-19 put France and much of the rest of the world on lockdown, before we were obliged to sequester ourselves in our homes, before our bodies were objectified as mere biological organisms susceptible to transmission and contagion, before our strategies for fighting were decollectivized and our voices fragmented.

Adèle Haenel (right) and Noémie Merlant (center) walk out of the 45th César Awards ceremony after Roman Polanski was named best director, Salle Pleyel, Paris, February 28, 2020. Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images.

If global techno-patriarchal capitalism had deliberately organized a transversal strategy to dissolve dissident movements from Hong Kong to Barcelona to Warsaw, it could not have found a better formula than the one imposed by the virus, with home confinement and social-distancing precautions and the new digital tracing of potentially infected tele-citizens. The shock doctrine elucidated by Naomi Klein, with its distinct phases—instrumentalizing “natural” catastrophe, declaring a state of emergency, transforming a crisis into a government mode, saving the banks and the multinationals while letting people die by the thousands, and so on—has gradually unfolded before our eyes on a planetary scale. It’s all really happening, but stating that without noting the possibility of equally strategic resistance, without considering the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on individual and collective consciousness, also means naturalizing oppression, taking it for granted, signing a blank check to capitalism for the apocalypse.

One need not invoke religion to understand the social and political changes that the Covid-19 crisis has generated as a giant technological-shamanic ritual for “stopping the world.”

What can we learn about the neoliberal management of Covid-19 when we examine it from a decolonial transfeminist and antiracist perspective? It is precisely in moments like these that we must, to use the words of the feminist and decolonial political theorist Françoise Vergès, activate utopian thinking as an energy and a force of uprising, as the dream of emancipation and as the gesture of rupture. We must recognize that the management of the Covid-19 crisis has generated not only a political state of exception and the hygienic regulation of the social body, but also what we might call, following Félix Guattari and Suely Rolnik, a micro-political state of exception: a crisis of the infrastructure of consciousness, of perception, of meaning, and of signification. And this micro-political opening is our only chance.

STOP THE WORLD. I WANT TO GET OFF.

Every culture has invented procedures for isolation, for fasting, for breaking the rhythms of eating, sexual activity, and production. Those caesuras serve as techniques for modifying subjectivity, activating a process that disrupts perception and feeling and can ultimately generate a transformation, a new way of becoming. Certain languages of Indigenous shamanism call this process “stopping the world.” And that is literally what happened during the Covid-19 crisis. The capitalist mode briefly stopped.

The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa describes the pandemic as the most important collective experience of the century, because it shows that, through a set of coordinated political decisions, we can stop the acceleration of capitalism. We are dealing with a phenomenon of immense complexity. In some respects, the virus is moving us more swiftly toward what political theorist Jodi Dean calls neo-feudalism, intensifying the upward transfer of wealth to individuals and corporations (such as Jeff Bezos and Amazon, or the companies reaping government contracts and unneeded bailout money via the Trump administration’s blatant corruption). In fact, digital acceleration and the deceleration of Fordist modes of production coexist as a mixed dynamic during the pandemic crisis. Nevertheless, the paralysis of carbon capitalism, even if it isn’t total, is unprecedented, and, as Rosa emphasizes, it has been the result of a global political decision. We can, and we have been able to, stop. And that abrupt deceleration not only engenders an economic crisis, it is also likely to produce what I would call an aesthetic crisis, a rupture within neoliberal subjectivity.

If we observe the different shamanic rituals of Indigenous societies to “stop the world,” we could say (drawing on the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s analysis of Tupi rituals and shamanic practices) that they usually include at least three stages. In the first, the subject is confronted with their mortality; in the second, they see their position in the trophic chain and perceive the energetic connections that unite all living things; in the final stage, they radically modify their desire, which will perhaps allow them to transform, to become someone else. I’m not talking about religious experience, because I’m not referring to any theological system or transcendent wisdom. But one need not invoke religion to understand the social and political changes that the Covid-19 crisis has generated as a giant technological-shamanic ritual for “stopping the world,” one capable of introducing significant modifications to our consciousness. The three stages of Tupi shamanism could function, on a global scale, as a prelude to a political transformation of subjectivity that in turn would result in nothing less than a planetary paradigm shift.

A burned area of the Amazon rain forest, Prainha, Brazil, November 23, 2019. Photo: Leo Correa/AP/Shutterstock.

SHOCK, FINITUDE, AND DEATH: NECROPOLITICS IN THE NEOLIBERAL ECONOMY

As the Bolivian feminist Maria Galindo has emphasized, the specificity of this pandemic is not the high rate of mortality but the fact that it threatens the governing bodies of the global capitalist North: white European and North American men over the age of fifty. When awareness of AIDS spread around the world in the 1980s, no politician lifted an institutional finger, because they all thought those who were dying (homosexuals, drug addicts, Haitians, Africans, sex workers, trans people, et al.) either weren’t worth saving or deserved to be killed. No preventative measures were applied by governments at that time; no massive, taxpayer-funded research programs were launched to find a cure; instead, governments only deployed techniques of stigmatization, exclusion, and death. The same has been true in the twenty-first century, as Ebola, tuberculosis, and dengue fever—and, still, AIDS—sow death in the countries of the Global South, where health systems do not exist or are weakened by neocolonial politics, debt, and austerity. But today, and for the first time since penicillin was discovered, Covid-19 has made the privileged members of the opulent societies of the North and the old European colonial empires confront death. Even though they control the great majority of the world’s riches, the governing bodies of the North are encountering their vulnerability and mortality. In the face of the virus, neither financial assets nor capital reserves can save them. The Covid-19 crisis is a crisis of the sovereignty of the white male heterosexual body of patriarchal-colonial capitalism. It is an equally dire moment for all those who, from other body and identity positions, share the ruling privileges of the North in one way or another. The rows of corpses in body bags and the communal graves on Hart Island in New York and in other large, wealthy cities, and the cremations with no possibility of funerals or mourning rituals, have brutally placed the ruling bodies of the North in a similar situation to that which already constituted everyday experience for refugees, migrants, low-income workers—all feminized and racialized people, both in the North and also in the colonized South. That is the first lesson of the global technological-shamanic ritual: The fight cannot be transversal until everyone, including the privileged, has shared the experiences of dispossession, oppression, and death that capitalism generates.

Batu Hijau copper and gold mine on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, September 21, 2012. Photo: Neil Chatterjee/Reuters.

THE CANNIBALISTIC METAPHYSICS OF PATRIARCHAL-COLONIAL CAPITALISM

In shamanic rituals of “transformation,” through the use of psychotropic plants and other techniques (fasting, dancing, scarification, tattooing, modification of the body, the repetition of words), the initiate, to change, first becomes conscious of their position with respect to the production, reproduction, and consumption of vital energy. This is what anthropologists call “seeing the trophic chain.” The initiate understands, for example, that they extract life and energy from plants or animals (or from humans in the case of anthropophagus cultures), which they kill for nourishment or for other reasons. In certain Indigenous societies, the goal is to understand the difference between “killing to eat” and “killing to accumulate power.” In order to change, the drive to accumulate power, which has commandeered all desire, must be gradually perceived as an accumulation of death, as a poison, the stockpiling of which threatens the balance of life.

Meat processing plant, Rio de Janeiro, March 21, 2017. Photo: Joedson Alves/EPA/Shutterstock.

With forms of oppression amplified and with the institutional dysfunction of neoliberal democracies stripped bare, the Covid-19 crisis has made visible the trophic chain of patriarchal-colonial capitalism. The cartography of the pandemic’s expansion and its catastrophic effect on the global economy have allowed us to “see” the links between deforestation and viral contamination; between the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry; between care, racialization, and feminization of work; between the exploitation of workers in the South and consumption chains in the North; between telecommuting and digital pornography. Wuhan is a key node in the global automobile industry, home to factories that produce parts for European car companies such as Peugeot and Citröen. China, India, and Pakistan are the world’s textile-manufacturing centers. South America and Africa remain the principal sites for the extraction of rare metals and the raw materials needed to make the most sophisticated communications and digital technologies in the world. The writer Eduardo Galeano observes that in the past, the toxicity of these processes was mostly felt locally, on the peripheries of global capitalism, where “gold was transformed into garbage and food into poison.” Today, the flux of capitalism has saturated the whole world: Garbage has reached the beaches of the North, and poison fills our plates.

To the precarity created by class, race, gender, and sexual divisions, other segmentations of power are added: the exposed versus the protected, those who have shelter versus those who live on the streets.

The crisis has also exposed patriarchal-colonial capitalism’s anthropophagus function. Colonial modernity has divided living bodies into species, classes, nationalities, races, sexes, sexualities, abilities, and more. In this world economy, some are placed in a naturalized position as predators and others as prey. Sexual and racial violence is mutating with the virus. Face masks and sanitary coveralls diminish the difference between men and women, Black and white. But beneath the suit and behind the mask, differences persist and are accentuated. On the one hand, there’s the low-risk social confinement of wealthy whites; on the other, the forced contamination of poor, feminized, and racialized workers.

Migrants at their windows during a protest at the Hal Far detention center, Birzebbuga, Malta, April 16, 2020. Photo: Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Shutterstock.

Democratic institutions ostensibly charged with protecting the vulnerable (children, the sick, the elderly, people with specific functional or psychological needs, for example) have revealed their complicity with the structures of patriarchal-colonial capitalism, behaving the way the state always behaves in totalitarian and colonial contexts: It abandons, extorts, oppresses, lies, and administers punishment and death. Institutions weakened by neoliberal privatization transmogrify and absorb one another. The war that political leaders mention in speeches nowadays in the United States, Brazil, or France is a war that institutions are waging against citizens. Hospitals become trenches, nursing homes become morgues, sporting arenas become detention centers for the homeless, prisons become places of mass execution by viral firing squads. On the streets, the white supremacist violence of the police is amplified and further legitimized during the crisis.

The war is also inside the home. Domestic space, the immunitary withdrawal pod, has proved not only to be a small island of relative safety but also a concentration of all the forms of oppression and heteropatriarchal violence. During the widespread directives to shelter in place, cases of domestic violence, including sexual violence, have multiplied. As telecommuting becomes the norm, the labor of care and reproduction, of affection and sexuality, is still unrecognized as labor. To the precarity created by class, race, gender, and sexual divisions, other segmentations of power are added: the exposed versus the protected, those who clean versus those whose bodies are cleaned, those living in private homes versus those who are institutionalized, those who have shelter versus those who live on the streets, the producers of food versus those who eat, those who offer care versus those who are cared for.

Inmates riot, demanding access to house arrest during the Covid-19 pandemic, Villa Devoto, Buenos Aires, April 24, 2020. Photo: Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

The Covid-19 crisis and its capacity to lay bare the intrinsically linked infrastructures of economic and political (re)production of life and death, as well as the fundamental interconnectedness of all forms of oppression, could help us delineate the contours of a new planetary revolutionary movement for which forms of oppression based on race, sex, class, and ability do not oppose one another but are rather intertwined and amplified. Over the past two centuries there have been hundreds of struggles, but they have been fragmented. Thanks to the work of theorists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and to the corpus of intersectional feminism more broadly, we can see with historical hindsight that the politics of emancipation were for too long structured in accordance with a naturalized logic of identity, and to a great extent still are. Movements for enlarging the democratic horizon formed around binary oppositions that ended up renaturalizing political subjects in the struggle and creating exclusions: for example, feminism for women, heterosexuals, and whites (taking for granted, when not legitimizing, homophobia, transphobia, and racism); or LGBT+ politics for homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals (the + serving more to indicate the political supplement of being white and wealthy than the inclusion of race and gender minorities); or disability politics defined in relation to medical categories that still oppose “valid” and “invalid” bodies according to a capitalist standard of production and that see feminist, queer, or trans demands as a “luxury” exceeding the realm of disability struggles. Thus, the addition of missing minorities within the neoliberal framework, or into that of the colonial anthropocentric human-rights movements, would not come to destabilize the techno-patriarchal capitalist trophic chain. Moreover, until very recently, struggles have been structured in terms of modern tensions between justice and recognition, between freedom and equality, between nature and culture. We have watched the intensifying antagonism between the politics of class and the politics of race and of gender, and feminist liberation has been instrumentalized to validate racist and antimigratory politics. Modern ideas of justice, freedom, and equality are still too often based on a patriarchal, gender-binary, and racist consensus. I would rather speak of the somatic-political lumpen of the world (a radical multiplicity of living bodies and organisms out of which energy is extracted through a variety of different governmental techniques) becoming a new political force (and yet not a single subject or identity) for planetary transformation.

Seeking to surpass traditional and reductive oppositions between the labor movement and feminism, between decolonization and ecologism, the voices of a wide range of feminist theorists (such as Silvia Federici, Donna Haraway, Françoise Vergès, Annie Sprinkle, and Beth Stephens) invite us to imagine a contemporary global working class as a vast ensemble of mineralized, vegetalized, animalized, feminized, and racialized bodies and organisms that carry out the devalued work of the sexual, emotional, and social reproduction of techno-life on planet Earth. That trans-eco-sex-feminist and decolonial perspective furthermore entails a modification of the representation of the political subject and its sovereignty. The coming revolution implements these perspectives as planetary praxis, or, rather, as “sym-poiesis,” to put it in Haraway’s terms. It is not a negotiation of quotas of representations nor a laying out of degrees of oppression, even if it has been caricatured as such by critics of the Right and Left alike. The coming revolution positions the emancipation of the vulnerable living body at the center of the process of political production and reproduction.

Temporary homeless shelter set up in a Cashman Center parking lot after a local shelter closed due to a positive case of Covid-19, Las Vegas, March 31, 2020. Photo: David Becker/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

By naturalizing the sphere of social and sexual reproduction, the political philosophies of Marxism and liberalism have emphasized the control of the means of production. Meanwhile, the political languages of fascism have made the violent capturing of life’s means of sexual reproduction (the definition and policing of masculinity and femininity, of family, of “racial purity”) central to its political discourse and action. From Donald Trump’s United States to Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, from Andrzej Duda’s Poland to Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s Turkey, we are now confronted with the expansion of neonationalist and techno-patriarchal forms of totalitarianism. Sooner rather than later and in a brutal manner, with the legalization of telephone-immunity tracing, we will also face the worldwide expansion of forms of techno-totalitarianism and biodigital surveillance.

The crisis is a call, not to arms, but rather to dreams, a call to constitute a vast new countercultural force that can act against the techno-patriarchal front.

In the face of these ascendant totalitarianisms, old patriarchal-colonial productivisms—namely, neoliberalism and communism and their nationalist or global variants—will not be able to perform as veritable opposing forces, because they share a similar necropolitical infrastructure, a comparable carbon energy, the same ideal of productivity and economic growth, and postulate the same sovereign political body: a racially “pure,” virile, and heterosexual subject. Neonationalists want to return to the past. Techno-neoliberalists and communists want to accelerate. Neither wants genuinely radical change. That is perhaps the most important teaching of the Covid-19 techno-shamanic ritual of “stopping the world.” Only a new alliance of transfeminist, antiracist, anticolonial, and ecological struggles will be able to combat the privatization of institutions, the financialization of wealth and the debt economy, and the expansion of techno-patriarchal and neocolonial totalitarianism. Only a transversal somatic-political revolution would be able to set in motion a genuine alternative.

Police during a protest following the death of George Floyd, 3rd precinct, Minneapolis, May 28, 2020. Photo: Jenny Salita/Flickr.

THE MUTATION OF POLITICAL DESIRE AND THE REVOLUTION

In shamanic rituals, this third stage is the one that allows a different self to develop by activating a process of transformation that might involve, for example, a change of name, the entrance into a certain space or institution, exile, or a shift in social status. The lesson of the Covid-19 crisis as global techno-shamanic ritual is that only a mutation in political desire can set in motion the epistemological transition capable of dislodging the patriarchal-colonial capitalist regime. Angela Davis said that during the years of official racial segregation in the United States, the hardest part was imagining that things could be different. The fundamental problem we face is that the patriarchal-colonial capitalist regime has colonized the function of desire by assigning it monetary value, has captured it with a semiotics of violence, distorting it with modes of consumerist objectification and depressive submission. The key to patriarchal-colonial capitalism is not the production of economic profit but the creation of a subjectivity in which desires have been adapted to the processes of production of capital and the heterosexual and colonial reproduction of life. Violence operates by creating a normative subjectivity that takes possession of the body and of consciousness to the point that both agree to “identify with” the very process of extracting their own life. The first thing that power extracts, modifies, and destroys is our capacity to desire change. Until now, the entire patriarchal-colonial edifice of capitalism has rested on a hegemonic aesthetic that has limited the field of perception, cut off sensitivity, and captured desire. And it is this desire that is in crisis with the “stopping of the world” that the management of the virus has generated. In the ’70s, Mafalda, yet another enraged girl, popularized the motto “Stop the world, I want to get off.” Now the world has stopped. The question is whether we will continue to seek impossible forms of escape or stay where we are and change everything.

Protesters, Palais de Justice, Paris, June 2, 2020. Photo: Michel Euler/AP/Shutterstock.

CODA: JUNE 4, PARIS

I wrote this essay in France, in April, when many of us were in confinement, the most fragile among us were dying, and the voices of the transfeminist and antiracist movements could barely be heard. The crisis has worked not only as a “general rehearsal” for the global climate crisis to come, as Bruno Latour has wisely stated. It is also a call, not to arms, but rather to dreams, a call to constitute a vast new countercultural force that can act against the techno-patriarchal front. The political management of the pandemic has amplified all forms of racial, sexual, and gender oppression. The interwoven operations of patriarchal-colonial necropolitical technologies are more evident than ever. In the United States, the authoritarian drift of the government, the lack of public health care, the increased class divisions, institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the exclusion and dispossession of people with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, and migrants have reached unprecedented levels. On May 25, the brutal police assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis was made visible to the world by a cell-phone video and became the unbearable signifier of the somatopolitical war by the patriarchal-colonial state and its institutions against its racialized and sexualized subjects. Yet in this war that goes on and on after years of expropriations, destructions, pathologizations, imprisonments, and exterminations, a new opposing front has appeared. The Black Lives Matter movement has been able to gather the rage and transform it into a global answer to necropolitics. On June 2, I joined the Paris demonstration in alliance with the North American protests. Here in France, the movement is organized around the demand for justice in the wake of another brutal, racist police murder, that of the young Adama Traoré in 2016. This was the first demonstration I’ve seen in which it appeared that most of the protesters were under thirty years old, almost as young as the participants in the #FridaysForFuture strikes. For the first time in years, I felt not merely hopeful but certain that a new somatopolitical alliance is taking shape. This is no longer a fantasy. This is not just a movement for legal reform. It is a program for radical transformation. The transfeminist antiracist revolution that was germinating before the virus—led by BLM, it is growing. Substitute diagrammatic organization for reaction to violence. Find your decolonized and depatriarchalized body. Find out how to make it. It is a question of life and death, youth and old age, sadness and joy. It is where everything plays out. 

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.

Paul B. Preciado is a philosopher, a curator, and a trans activist. His most recent book is Je suis le monstre qui vous parle (I am the Monster Talking to You) (Grasset, 2020); He is working on a collection of essays on COVID-19.

NOTES

*Tiqqun is a philosophical journal with an anarchist and post-Situationist bent, founded in 1999 by Julien Coupat. He was acquitted in 2018 in the Tarnac affair in which he was accused of sabotaging a TGV train line.