In Theorizing Utopian Agency: Two Steps Toward Utopian Techniques of the Self, Susan McManus asks us to question ingrained notions about the division between feeling and reason. She asks us to question, that is, the division that has been set up ideologically between affect and political agency. “My core concern,” she writes, “is to explore the dynamics of political agency: specifically, I trace certain reflexive manoeuvres that have the potential to reorient subjectivity in politically significant directions to enhance and affirm utopian political agency, thereby making possible the reconnection of the threads of desire and hope, and making palpable the movement of utopian hope within history” (1). In challenging the division between feeling and reason, McManus imagines the affective register of utopian hope as a kind of “movement.” In this short reflection piece I would like to take on the implications of her work, considering a mutual concern for thinking about the relationship between affect and political agency; I do so by scrutinizing the “palpab[ility]” of movement and non-movement and ask: what potential might lie in the affective assemblage of non-movement, idleness and stillness?
I. Idle No More
I want to begin by drawing out some of the complexities that attend the project of thinking about idleness or non-movement and political agency together. I do so by looking at a set of recent and ongoing events known as the Idle No More movement. Described generally as a grassroots indigenous rights movement, its origins stem, in part, from reaction to the passing of Bill C-45 in Canada, which as critics argue, erodes environmental protection laws, jeopardizes indigenous land rights, and disregards historical Crown treaties. The movement surprised many with the sudden, seemingly spontaneous speed with which it mobilized individuals into political protest. This escalation of actions, taking shape under the Idle No More banner, could be seen in social media and in numerous more traditional protest spaces with events characterized in terms of speed as so called “flash mobs.” Indeed, Idle No More takes momentum as its namesake: “we won’t take this laying back any longer,” its masthead beckons. As far as its name goes, at least, it registers a refusal to remain motionless in the face of the historical and systemic suppression of Aboriginal people, their claims to land, resources and political autonomy. In a sense, Idle No More casts itself as a political movement of movement itself. But when, if ever, were indigenous people and their allies idle in the first place? What does it mean politically to designate this surge of protest as a move toward motion?
One of the consequences of such a staging is that it makes the movement particularly vulnerable to a media script eager to understand political resistance as an event with a discernable start and end. By early January 2013, with the announcement of a series of talks between Aboriginal leaders including Chief Spence (who had been on hunger strike for nearly a month) and high-ranking government officials, the Idle No More movement which had begun two months earlier was, according to reports, reaching its peak momentum (see for example Galloway, who writes in The Globe and Mail, “winter fails to slow Idle No More’s momentum” 23 Dec 2012). By the same time the following month, newspapers began reporting fears that the movement was beginning to “fade” (see for example: Taylor-Vaisey, McClean’s, 21 Jan 2013). In a matter of months, the news stories went from asking, “where did this all come from?” to gauging the speed with which it would all peter out. From inside and outside the movement, judgments regarding its vitality were premised on its capacity to maintain “momentum.”
The movement’s reliance on momentum is complicated in one respect when we look at the protest tactics it employs. As I have mentioned, many of these involve flash mobs, which suggest the speed with which bodies were mobilized in various public or pseudo-public (i.e. commercial) sites, including streets, shopping malls and outside government buildings. These protests often included displays of Aboriginal culture such as prayer circles and line dances, each of which has a different resonance in terms of motion/stillness. But another purpose of many of these gatherings – certainly the most controversial – was the enactment of blockades. There were rail blockades in Manitoba and Ontario, obstructed traffic at the Canada-US border crossing at Sault Ste. Marie, and roads were temporarily shut down “coast to coast” (Galloway, Jan. 16 2013). By halting traffic, and thus affecting the regular flow of economic activity, the movement drew attention to its concerns and demands. This tactic is similar then to that of labour strikes, or cases where protesters tie themselves to some unmovable object so as to stop, say, an advancing bulldozer. It is difficult, however, to conceive of such actions which rely on unmoving bodies to cease the motion of industry – as instances of stillness, perhaps especially where they are deemed successful in some regard. Political agency is ascribed to these unmoving bodies and thus firmly rooted to notions of progress, and progress is defined as a sort of movement.
Responding to news of the blockades, the Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, met journalists to voice concern, as Galloway puts it, that Aboriginal protests could hurt the Canadian economy. Flaherty cites the slow rate of economic growth, saying: “this is not a time to have even more challenges to the Canadian economy” (Galloway, Jan. 16 2013). Flaherty’s comments work to position the Idle No More activists and Aboriginals more generally as inherently outside or against the Canadian economy, as if the environmental degradation and social disparity the movement is fighting against are not much greater challenges to the Canadian economy than the blockades he denounces. Flaherty’s flawed logic, I would argue, is naturalized by longstanding racism which has tried to establish the subject of protest as resistant to work and labour, outside historical progress and lacking political wherewithal – or, in other words, idle. The suggestion that Aboriginals lack that ability or the willingness to “move with the times” likewise naturalizes the politics of the Conservative government, while at the same time justifying a lack of engagement with those who challenge it.
In a strange and complicated way then, there is agreement between Idle No More and their governmental and public opponents: a politics imagined as that which is active and forward moving is the imperative. Idleness is not an option. In the section that follows, however, I would like to locate an instance where this is not the case. Bringing the relationship between movement and labour more explicitly into the fray, I discuss a set of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thinkers who understood idleness to be at the core of their political vision rather than its abnegation.
II. “In Praise of Idleness”
In a 2012 article in London’s Guardian newspaper, Owen Hatherley points out that one of the many things that are indistinguishable between the two largest political parties in the United Kingdom, Labour and Conservative, is their attitude to labour: idleness is not an option. As is typical globally, the right-wing political party is eager to praise the moral value of work and – as the UK example demonstrates well – justify social welfare cuts and so-called “austerity” economic policies with recourse to the figure of the “work-shy,” layabout “benefits [welfare] cheats.”  Likewise, voices on the left often centre their rhetoric on calls for “more jobs,” letting their opponents and supporters know that their politics is based on an eager willingness to work. As Hatherley points out, however, there have been exceptions to this uniformity across the political spectrum. Utopian socialist thinkers such as Paul Lafargue leverage the promise of technology to try to envision a future outside of the “slavery” of a capitalist logic of labour. In an 1883 article entitled “The Right to be Lazy,” he writes:
Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness wonderful inexhaustible,accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labour. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudices of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty. (74)
And more than half a decade later, in 1932, Bertrand Russell argues something similar in “In Praise of Idleness:”
Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery. (4-5)
Considering what Lafargue and Russell proposed, it is worth asking: is there radical potential in idleness? When these two writers evoke slavery, it is worth noting that the dialectic they rely on is a sort of prison/enlightenment one. Calling for laziness and idleness serves to critique the moral/capitalist imperative to work, but it is not Lafargue or Russell’s intention that individuals freed from the toils of work should be wholly lazy or idle. Individuals who have more time can develop their creative and intellectual skills and thus participate more fully in the advancement of society. At least some individuals, Russell notes, will follow “pursuits of some public importance” (14). But as we see from the following quote, he was keen to make the “working man” out in his image (bourgeois), while at the same time leaving no doubt as to the superiority of the early twentieth- century leisure class to which he belonged: “Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above. Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism” (13). Lafargue meanwhile holds the Greeks up as the model: “the free man [of Greek antiquity] knew only exercises for the body and mind… The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man” (24). Thus, for both writers, freeing “mankind” from incessant grind of the capitalist machine is a way of ensuring the fantasy of advancing society and cultural progress.
While I am attracted to the idea of re-establishing the right to be idle back into leftist politics as a way of re-inserting utopian thinking, there are perhaps three problems that arise in relation to the discussion above. Firstly, the idleness as freedom-from-work model that Lafargue or Russell employ is perhaps only valuable to the same degree that the line between labour and leisure is tenable. With regard the increasing precarity of the work force in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, it is often pointed out that technology has made it easier for “not-work” time to be made “productive” as “looking-for-work” time. Furthermore a certain amount of labour (i.e. a living wage) is necessary for leisure to be leisure(able). This suggests that the idleness of time off work is hardly free from work’s dictates.
Secondly, Lafargue or Russell’s vision of idleness as an opportunity for individual improvement and social advancement (ameliorations, of course, that match their moral views of what is wrong about the working class and what is right about the leisure class) constitutes a sort of disciplining mission that matches rather than abnegates “the articulation and hegemony of Western knowledge” (Alcoff & Mandietta qtd. in McManus 26). In other words, this space of leisure is an important discursive site where the epistemic division between reason and feeling that McManus sets out to challenge is, in fact, nurtured. Indeed, the dichotomy between work and leisure denotes one of the key ways that “modern regimes of subjectivity have been fashioned” (12).
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, demanding one’s right to be idle, to be lazy, might indeed constitute a challenge to a capitalist logic that understands subjects as labour or labour reserves; however, it also exposes the subject of that demand to the capitalist reasoning by which late-capitalism justifies disparity, poverty and exploitation – “they’re just lazy,” “why don’t they get a job?” This logic underwrites the “Workfare” program in the UK, for instance, where individuals must undertake unpaid work in return for their benefit payments or risk losing them. The work is dubbed as “work experience” and individuals in the scheme are not counted in unemployment statistics.  The reserve army of labour is not good enough; the labour ‘reserve’ itself must be put to work in the name of profits.
What Idle No More, Lafargue, and Russell speak to collectively is the difficulty of conceptualizing political agency outside the logic of movement, in as far as movement seems to be the very essence of political agency, as well as capitalism’s claim to reason, which takes the guise of natural progress. Both are rooted in the pervasive structure of neo-capitalism in which we dwell. But, idleness, it seems, serves more to bolster this logic than to dislodge it. As we see from Jim Flaherty’s comments about the Idle No More blockades, the unmoving subject is easily recast as the irrational other that affirms capitalist modernity as the state so committed to movement that it is willing to leave certain subjects behind for the sake of the nation “as a whole.” The same is true of the benefits claimant who is deemed to have failed a system that is infallible, precisely because it moves irrespective of the “scourge” of idleness. And so the radical potential I seek may rest not in opposition to movement per se, but radically outside the movement/non-movement logic that authorizes modernity’s claim to progress – and to the future. As Linda Alcoff and Eduardo Mandietta argue, liberation “will occur not by making ‘capitalism otherwise’ but through the exteriority that is ‘otherwise than capitalism’” (qtd. in McManus 26). I contend therefore that my gesture towards “anti-anti-Utopianism” (Jameson xvi) is a gesture of stillness lodged in the “affective register of subjectivity” (McManus 1). Following McManus’ model, stillness must be foreign to the logic of neo-capitalism rather than against it.
III. Stills: a gesture of Utopian feeling
In this last section and in the blog post that accompanies it, I want to evoke the idea of memory as a kind of stillness. I refer to the kind of memory that happens to us, that fills us, that has us. Do such memories not demand “a radical openness” (McManus 59) incommensurable with the state of neo-capitalism? Do they not have the capacity to displace us from our “inherited regime of subjectivity” (McManus 59) and thus potentially to stir the stagnation called movement that is late modernity? There are two conditions that I take for granted as I consider this. Firstly, not all memories are good but they are all beautiful. That is to say, they all possess a quality, both profound and distant, like beauty. What is this power to render and to filter experience into something that is at once only ours and not properly ours at all? Secondly, memory is rooted in experience but is distinct from “the past.” Memory, in other words, is not subject to the episteme of history. Whether it happened or not is not the point because memories are about and of the present.
The affective intensity registered by this stillness of memory shares much with McManus’s “practice of wonder” (McManus 29), which she casts as “a radical form of cognitive dissonance or dislocation, as a moment of estrangement that contains within it the possibility that all is not quite as it seems” (30). “Wonder,” she continues “is thus implicated in … the crucial manoeuvres whereby western modernity seeks to establish its privileged form of self-consciousness: wonder is invoked, and disavowed, in the inscription of a hierarchical distance between the affective and epistemological registers” (41). What is true of wonder in this regard is true of stillness: it is implicated in the manoeuvres whereby Western modernity seeks its privileged form of self-consciousness – one rooted in the imperative of movement and (economic) reason. But where idleness as politics is easily incorporated by the neoliberal state, the stillness I seek, I would like to contend, is not subject to that same internalization. It comes and goes, and does not rely, as positive agency does, on the need for representational realization within the system of capitalist production. It does not imply a movement from stasis to motion. It is not directional – which is to say it helps us imagine experience outside of the “inherited regime of subjectivity” (McManus 59) that defines neo-capitalism.
In several ways, however, my evocation of stillness complicates McManus’ approach to conceptualizing the political potential latent in dreaming and wonder. Stillness as a politics of one’s memory challenges the assumption that a transformative affective register must be “active” (McManus 2). My argument is that to acquiesce to the intensities of memory may be a form of passive agency that leverages the affective intensities of being moved, rather than finding a way to move. It suggests therefore, a form of passive agency that cuts athwart the movement/non-movement imperative of neo-capitalism. For McManus the potential of a “practice of wonder” is established through a subjective register “critically attuned to the not-yet, the horizon,” a “future we cannot yet conceptualize” (55). Stillness as memory shares “wonder’s disruptive vision” (36) but, rather than being oriented towards the future, reinstates that disruption as a consequence of the present. And therefore it emphasizes the radical potential of the present as existing for the sake of the present, rather than for that which is beyond it. This is not to say that memory as stillness does not demand something radically different than the “exigencies of the present order of things” (3). Indeed it does, but it also suggests that that radical difference might not necessitate anything that is not already ours.
This essay’s accompanying blog post is aimed at evoking the same concept of stillness as memory as I have discussed above.  Rather than being an illustration of Utopia, this small project is instead a kind of residue of Utopian dreaming. The post is made up of extracts and stills from two films that, in certain respects, could not be more different, but that share, what is for me, a fantastical quality. The excerpts that accompany the stills are taken from the 1955 film, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Henry King, dir.), which is set in Hong Kong at the outset of the 1950 Korean War. It is a film laden with stiff sentimentality and flagrant Orientalization. Rather than being a film comprised of symbiotic visual and auditory components, I see it as an orated script (almost surrealist) with a supplementary visual accompaniment.
The second film, from which the still images in the blog post are taken, is a VHS home video that my sister had recently digitized. The first time I saw it (when we watched it as a family at Christmas) I felt especially uncomfortable, and yet, I found myself eagerly seeking myself out as the wobbly frame swept back and forth across landscapes both familiar and strange. The camera would often zoom in on one of my elder sisters, or my mother who, on screen, reminded me of Princess Diana with her embarrassed affectations, or my father who was fain to play the buffoon, but it rarely and only ever very briefly rested on me. Perhaps I was too young or hyper to engage the cameraman – whose name I cannot remember – in a way that would please him, in a way that would affirm his technology’s interpolating authority. And so, I am a circumstantial body scampering – often effeminately – in and out of the frame, always running, impatient, tugging at my mother’s hand or yanking at my father. These were not utopian times. And I think this is precisely what draws me into these images. They are absolved of so much and, as such, are clearly not simply a part of “the past.” I have memories that are enlivened by what I see but this only serves to remind me that my memories too are not part of the past. Rather, they are strangers in the present.
The beauty and strangeness of both films, made stranger (and perhaps more beautiful) by their pairing, suggests, to me, an affective alterity irreducible to capitalist modes of cultural production. Reflecting an assemblage of contradictory affective intensities (melodrama, cuteness, melancholia, profundity, sentimentality, motherliness, innocence, loneliness, abjection, distortion, queerness, amputation, freshness, orientalism, eroticism, digitization, disappearance, wonder, stagnation, not least of all, love, and so on) this project is about feeling in the present the capacity to disrupt and remake, to think about memory as a kind of starting rooted in stillness.
 See, for example, Ball who discusses the public perception of the “scroungers” and “benefit cheats” and its role in naturalizing so called austerity policies. Guardian, 3 Feb. 2013.
 See: www.boycottworkfare.org
 See: http://whenwebuildagain.org/2013/04/23/still/
Ball, James. “Welfare Fraud Is a Drop in the Ocean Compared to Tax Avoidance.” The Guardian 3 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Berlant, Lauren. “Thinking About Feeling Historical.” Emotion, Space and Society 4.9 (2008): n. pag. Print.
Galloway, Gloria. “Idle No More Protests, Blockades Spread Across Country.” The Globe and Mail 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
—. “Winter Fails to Slow Idle No More’s Momentum.” The Globe and Mail 23 Dec. 2012 Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Inman, Phillip. “UK Unemployment Rise Adds to Pressure on Osborne’s Austerity Strategy.” The Guardian 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2007. Print.
Lafargue, Paul. The Right To Be Lazy. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 2012. Print.
McManus, Susan. “Theorizing Utopian Agency: Two Steps Toward Utopian Techniques of the Self.” Theory & Event 10.3 (2007) Project MUSE. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.
Russell, Bertrand. In Praise of Idleness: And Other Essays, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Taylor-Vaisey, Nick. “Idle No More Fades Behind More Traditional Headlines.” Macleans.ca 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Wingrove, Josh. “Chief Spence: Idle No More Must Keep Momentum.” The Globe and Mail 8 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.