This text is an introduction to Waypoints Volume 2 , a new collection of occasional writings from the last five years to be published in June by eyeglass books.
The book brings together pieces written over the past five years and thus spans the period from before the pandemic to its long aftermath. They are occasional in that they were prompted by particular circumstances, both personal and political , as well as by actual commissions. In another sense of the word they were produced in intermittent moments of inspiration or, more likely, exasperation rather than forming part of a single developing line of thought. These writings are thus happily circumscribed by the time and place of their creation, specific circumstances which are briefly spelt out in the introduction to each piece. Consequently I have not attempted to update the argument with the wisdom of hindsight. I have however redacted some of the more topical references and added some of more contemporary relevance.
In selecting and bringing these scattered pieces together for re-publication I have also become aware of an emergent set of connections, a network of threads of which I was largely unaware at the time of original writing. At one level this is more about stylistic attitude than any substantive theme. Whatever the topic at hand there was a drive to do full justice to its complexity and to avoid foreclosing its interpretation through falling back on dogmatic modes of thinking. Nor did I just want to document the ‘over determination’ or ‘multiple entanglements’ ( to use a more current academic buzz word ) of the phenomenon in order to vacillate over its meaning . It still seemed necessary to make some kind of judgement, to take sides in the debate even while questioning some of its terms . In particular it seemed important to distance the argument from the thumbs up/thumbs down judgementalism promoted by the twitterati on social media , and the ‘if you are not with us , you are against us ‘ kneejerk reactivism still current on the sectarian Left.
Subsequently it occurred to me that the attendant dilemma , namely how far to carry the account in the direction of some kindof recognisable parti pris – with all the associated risks of confirmation bias- is one that is generic to living in what has been called the grey zone . By this term I have come to mean those widening arenas of public discourse and private anxiety where received certainties anchored to inherited perceptions of social or ideological polarity no longer have so much traction in shaping commitments or actions , even though the inequalities and injustices which subtend them continue to multiply, intensify and intersect , albeit in often new and unfamiliar forms.
As someone who has been a committed Groucho Marxist for many years, never joining a club which would have me as a member, whilst being a conscientious fellow traveller in numerous radical Left wing causes, I have come to feel quite at home in this grey zone, but in putting this text together I have begun to realise that it is no longer a creatively habitable space , if it ever was. Each of the texts in its way is a groping after some alternative space of commitment.
Taking sides while being in two minds
What does it mean today to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?. Contemporary audiences, schooled in the neo-liberal catechisms of possessive individualism, tend to be impatient with Hamlet’s vacillation and the kinds of ambivalence which immobilises him. Why doesn’t he just re-invent himself and move on ? However as soon as we go beyond existential angst at the state of the world, and try to do something concretely about it, we often find ourselves in a space where things are more complicated than simple binary oppositions : to be or not to be on the right-or left – side of history.
For example, It is easy enough , especially for those on the ‘Left’, to enumerate our current political afflictions : the climate emergency, the geopolitical drift to a new world war, the obscene concentrations of wealth and power, sexism, racism, etc etc.. And to take sides, if not arms , against them. But not only is it increasingly hard to stay with these troubles without feeling overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their concatenation , it is even more difficult to sustain forms of collective opposition which stand a realistic chance of ending them. We can all be rhetorically on the side of the people of Ukraine in their heroic resistance against Putin’s villainous attempt to annex their country as part of a new Russian Empire. But does anyone really have a clue about what can be done to bring the war to a just conclusion ? Almost everyone is nominally enrolled in the fight against global heating , but most of us are heavily addicted to patterns of consumption which accelerate it. We may be ‘anti-capitalist’ but unless we live off grid and without using our digital devices, we are involuntarily implicated in the commodification of data which fuels platform capitalism’s dynamic growth.
In the new uncertainty principles which currently govern historical outcomes , it is not just that actions undertaken in good faith may have unintended and negative consequences ( or none at all!) but that this opens up a frame of reference in which those acting in bad faith can blur crucial distinctions, viz between what is progressive and what is reactionary, what is in the best interests of the many and what serves to legitimate the privileges of the few , what is a moral and what an immoral economy.
When such demarcations are no longer being clearly articulated in everyday political discourse and are instead replaced by euphemisms, equivocations, or disavowals, a vacuum opens up which is increasingly filled by free floating denunciatory rhetorics, often with a populist slant . Against this backdrop the current proliferation of conspiracy theories can be regarded as an understandable if delusional attempt to reinstate Manichean moral distinctions as vectors of social and ideological polarity : to feel emboldened to call a spade a spade if only because it is being manipulated by a ‘hidden hand’.
A somewhat similar perverse logic can be found at work in the black and white victimologies created by the more toxic and authoritarian brands of identity politics. In reducing the fluidity of social identifications to the interplay of fixed moral categories viz women /gay/ black people – good ; male/ heteronormative/white people- bad , this world turned upside down tends to reproduce, even as it reverses the binaries of discrimination; this flip side is, in turn, used by hostile campaigns to invalidate demands for social justice . Just how difficult it is to escape this double bind is dramatically illustrated by those who adopt a non-binary gender identity, only to discover they have inadvertently created a new one in the opposition between ‘trans’ and ‘Cis’.
When we move from the front lines to the backyards of social conflict we often find ourselves trapped in a rather different kind of binarism , damned if we do and damned if we don’t . In such routine quandaries it is easy to forget that to be in two minds is actually a quite normal state of affairs and reflects a simple neurological fact : the operation of the limbic system is intimately entangled with that of the pre-frontal cortex; it is literally a no brainer to recognise that our emotional and rational impulses, the expressive and instrumental dimensions of our interaction with the material world , are intimately connected , and continually and contingently generate states of cognitive dissonance or feelings of ambivalence whenever they are simultaneously mobilised.
In one sense we are all potentially double agents, working on both sides of whatever lines are drawn in the shifting sands of our times. According to circumstances ( over which we may have little or no control) we may be capable of acting generously or meanly ,behave with kindness or cruelty, display bravery or cowardice. If ‘being in two minds ‘ persists as a description of our ambivalence , then in my view it is not because of some principle of undecidability built into the very fabric of human existence (to be or not to be) or because there are so many states of affairs which are equally probable and improbable at the same time , and, from another standpoint, neither possible nor impossible . I think we remain trapped in two minds because of the widening gap between what is desirable and what is achievable in terms of political and personal outcomes .
In the past it was possible to sit on the ideological fence with at least a semblance of equilibrium, whether in the name of ‘objectivity’ ‘ neutrality’ or ‘seeing both sides of the argument’, or even by saying ‘a plague on both your houses’ . Today in many contexts that notional ‘third space’ is not a credible option. Who apart from climate deniers can in all honesty assert that there are two sides to the argument about climate change when the science is so overwhelmingly on the side of acknowledging the damage caused by fossil fuels?
If mass indecision persists in the face of such certainties it is not just down to apathy , resignation or whatever of the hundreds of good and bad reasons people may have for doing nothing. It is because political decisions always imply a leap into the unknown and the more these unknowns are known about , the more frightened people become and the greater the urge to foreclose on the painful process needed to address them. Easier to believe that God or Gaia is punishing us for mismanaging the planets resources, than to do anything to mitigate the crisis of global heating.
Under our present conditions of radical un/certainty , there can never be any guarantees that we are embarked on the right course of action. Which is why of course we invent fictional ones. That is the work that ideologies do , especially those that give a teleological twist to the tall stories they tell : they replace debilitating fears of the unknown with motivational faith in re-assuring futures. By no coincidence the most popular (and populist) versions of these grand narratives answer to a widespread but disavowed desire to have our cake and eat it, to magically close the gap between what is desirable and what is achievable. Nevertheless that gap or grey zone persists and continues to overshadow even the most resolute and self confident programmes of action.
We use the term ‘grey zone’ to describe issues in which there are no clear cut ‘black and white’ solutions or where our moral and political vocabulary does not adequately capture their complexity. But what about situations that have not just to do with subject positions but structural locations over which people have little or no choice and control?
The term grey zone was originally made famous by Primo Levi in his 1971 essay about the culture of Nazi concentration camps. The essay argued that it was in the character of coercive regimes to not only brutalise those subjected to them through direct violence, torture and terror but by enabling some of the victims to collaborate and even identify with their oppressors. This could involve carrying out beatings and other punishments , or routine administrative tasks which kept the machinery .of oppression going . Whether those who were recruited for such roles did so to secure minimal privileges for themselves or in the belief that they could mitigate some of the regime’s worst effect on fellow inmates, Levi argued that their ambiguous status , as at once perpetrator and victim of institutionalised violence did not absolve them from judgement..
Levi’s model of the grey zone serves to complicate unilateral models of domination and subordination and to highlight the complex inter-personal relations which mediate them. His analysis has subsequently been applied to the culture of Soviet Gulags, to slave plantations , to contemporary penitentiaries and to the position of overseers and foremen in large industrial factories and logistics centres. Even to the prefect system in English public schools.
One of the more transferable aspects of his concept comes from its highlighting the way State actors i.e. those officially appointed and employed by the State to prosecute oppressive policies , often make use of unofficial or non- State proxies to carry out some of their dirty work for them. This has led to a more recent adoption of the term by military strategists and political scientists to denote situations of armed conflict which are neither all out war nor secure peace, but where a range of actors , both civilian and military, irregular militias, ‘special forces’ etc , operate clandestinely to conduct what is called ‘hybrid’ or ‘asymmetrical ‘operations. This euphemism refers to a range of tactics designed to weaponise social and ethnic divisions, undermine the morale of the local population , and destabilise existing forms of democratic governance. The Russian Federation’s operations in the Ukraine, notably Crimea and the Donbas prior to the invasion of 2022 are often cited as a prime example of this approach.
As a result of this expanded take up , the definition of ‘grey zone’, the limits and conditions of its appropriate usage , has itself become a site of ambiguity and contestation. Clearly a term which can be applied equally to Kapo’s in Auschwitz beating fellow inmates to death and to public school prefects beating a ‘fag’ for failing to polish their shoes, to guerrilla campaigns to protect indigenous communities against land grabs by logging companies and to cyber attacks on government information infrastructures, or to the role of Wagner group mercenaries in Ukraine and to volunteer civil militias mustered to defend their homes against such attacks, this diverse usage offers a hostage to fortune. It risks conflating a whole lot of disparate situations reducing them to a lowest common denominator of being ‘borderline’ in a way that tacitly erases key moral and strategic distinctions that need to be made.
Perhaps then we need to find another term to define the position of those who find themselves caught up and made complicit in the most egregious examples of human rights abuse. We might call them anthropocidal exterminators in so far as the effect of their actions or inactions, whether intended or not, is to help systematically destroy the grounds of human solidarity. In contrast we might reserve the term ‘grey zoners’ for those trapped in contradictory subject positions as a result of unregulated interventions by the State into the life of civil society, operations which aim to identify, isolate and ‘pacify’ groups regarded as an ‘enemy within’ through a mixture of legal and extra-legal means.
Such interventions have been greatly facilitated by the development of new technologies of mass surveillance which have enabled practices previously confined to military operations to be routinely embedded in the policing and governance of whole populations of citizenry ‘for their own protection and good’. So we have declared wars against poverty, crime and drugs which have the undeclared objective of criminalising , demonising and incarcerating various kinds of ‘dangerous class’ . Paradoxically the use of such illiberal measures by liberal democracies has only been achieved by winning the active consent of a substantial number of those who are potentially their target as well as drawing in and implicating a whole lot of otherwise ‘liberal’ actors in their administration : for example doctors and teachers become unpaid ‘border guards’ reporting on the behaviour or attitudes of immigrants regarded by the authorities as potentially forming a fifth column threatening ‘homeland security’ .
The structure of the book
This is the context which tacitly informs the studies which make up this book. In different ways they explore the collateral damage caused by the collapse of the institutions and discourses which hitherto sustained principles of hope, if not certainty , in the advent of a better, more generous world for the many, and not just the few .
Each of the five sections focusses on a specific grey zone: knowledge power relations in the neo- liberal university and the changing role of intellectuals; class dis/identifications and the principles of hope historically associated with the Left ; urban regeneration as a site of private aspiration and public disenchantment ; the body politics of ‘race’ and the Covid 19 pandemic ; the traumatic impact of war on civil society, its art and cultural memoryscape.
I hope that taken together these studies may offer what I have called a Left Field perspective on our present conjuncture, the aim being to stay as alert to new and surprising possibilities for democratic renewal and change as to the all too familiar structures which inhibit, pre-empt or corrupt their emergence. As this disunited island continues to struggle to find a coherent post-Imperial role for itself under an increasingly chaotic, right wing government, we need to challenge nostalgia for a future that is guaranteed to come to pass as vigorously as the longing to return to a past that never was.
My personal stake in this work was suggested by a dream I had as the book was nearing completion. I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions:
I am visiting a strange kind of theme park . At the entrance there is a gateway which reminds me of Auschwitz with a sign above reading WELCOME TO THE GREY ZONE Inside , instead of rides there are cages with people dressed as clowns and animals working on ‘Heath Robinson’ looking machines The machines produce excrement in little heaps. Each heap is very smelly and crawling with larvae which turn into grey butterflies. The child visitors chase them with nets and when they catch some they hand them in at a kiosk which issues them with liquorice sticks in exchange. Everywhere you look there are kids running around with liquorice smeared all over their faces . The liquorice has a powerful scent which masks the smell of the poo. The words ‘Perfumed Putrefaction’ come to mind Then I pass by a carnival parade with characters from the mediaeval ‘monstrous races’ : there is one with two heads, another with a head on his chest, yet a third with a dog face. The parade is being policed by guards dressed in grey pyjamas, reminding me of the inmates of the camps. From time to time they perform cartwheels while the watching crowd applaud enthusiastically and give the Sig Heil salute. I turn my back on the scene and walk towards a tower made out of books . The books face outwards so you can turn the pages and read them. I start reading a book about ‘Grey Zones’ which turns out to be by me but the wind gets up and blows the pages all over the place. I run after them and try to gather them up but it starts to rain and I am left with just a few soggy pages in my hands..