From: Christopher C___@___
How are you? It’s been a little while, eh? What have you been up to?
I write to you with a request for advice, but also from intellectual curiosity. I’ll cut to the chase: I have gotten fairly involved with Occupy Wall Street, which has been a fascinating and transformative experience. It has given me incredible food for thought, as they say. One of the most interesting aspects of the movement has been its insistence on working groups for carrying out projects. Needless to say, gathering so many passionate people into small groups (and sometimes large groups) has led to much conflict and interpersonal frustration. To be fair, it has also led to incredibly productive and reflective conversations, initiatives, dynamics, etc.
The question of group dynamics has come into center stage in the movement, in many ways. While managing a crisis situation within one of my groups, I thought of you. I suppose I actually have two requests related to all of this:
1) Would you be able to recommend a reading list for getting familiar with the field of group dynamics? So far I have read Freud’s Group Analysis and Bion’s Experience in Groups. Any and all suggestions are most welcome, from the most clinical to the most theoretical or philosophical.
2) Would you be able to recommend someone in New York who is in the field of group therapy, family therapy or in other ways working with groups or studying group dynamics? Ideally, they would be left/progressive and sympathetic to the movement. And, further ideally, they would be willing to “donate” their time to the movement :)
Thanks for taking the time. I send you kind and warm wishes, remembering my EGS days fondly!
To: Christopher C___@___
Subject: RE: Advice!
You are obviously well, as the old joke goes about two behaviourists meeting on the street. After reading my letter, please let me know how I’m doing.
Anything I can do to support and vicariously participate in the movement is very welcome. I visited our local movement while they occupied a small park in downtown Montreal. To the best of my knowledge, only one Canadian city still has an active movement occupying a city park – St. John’s, Newfoundland. After many promises from the Mayor of Montreal not to interfere with the movement here, Tremblay did a volte-face, an “about face” (aversio in Latin) in late fall and suddenly by-laws about safety and concerns for health led to the eviction of the movement from Victoria Square in the heart of the financial district of Montreal. Exploring the roots of these words in different languages, we perceive that his “turn” certainly led to adversity for the movement here. While it is true that we have harsh winters here (today, it’s almost thirty degrees below zero, centigrade), we are a hardy people. My conversations with movement members in the park revealed that they knew what they needed to withstand the cold and snow and were well prepared. In any case, there are countless homeless people in Montreal (the French terms are instructive—either itinérants, suggesting “wanderers,” or sans abris, “without shelter”) who do not receive so much official attention.
I am spending the next six months writing my doctoral dissertation, “Trauma and Event,” which knits together three key thinkers – Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault. Both Agamben and Badiou have been very generous with their time and I am fortunate to have Thomas Zummer, our mutual friend and professor at EGS on Foucault, as an interlocutor. In an early e-mail to him, I unwittingly rechristened him, Michael Zummer, which he took with his usual good humour; we agreed that I had a telling lapsus in fusing Michel (Foucault/Thomas) Zummer. In any case, Thomas would undoubtedly be a great source of support and understanding if you contact him and has the advantage of being based in Brooklyn, despite his teaching commitments abroad.
In your context, this means that the remainder of the traumatic past (the ongoing cultural hegemony of capitalism, in Gramsci’s terms) may cast a shadow on the movement’s activities, foreclosing the event (which is both in principle and practice impossible to predict). This thesis also predicts that these impediments include rivalries and struggles for control arising out of a passion to guide the movement. Badiou says that naming the Event and fidelity to it are what maintains the truth of the Event and creates the subject in a way that is reciprocally constitutive. Your transformative experience with the Occupy movement seems to corroborate his notion that fidelity maintains the Event and creates its subjects. Nonetheless, the traumatic remainder sneaks through in the form of group conflicts. Speaking only for my worries (and not my hopes), this is what concerns me—trauma as an impediment to the political Event.
On se revolte par haine, on devient révolutionnaire par raison. Les deux en même temps.
—Jean-Paul Sartre (my translation)
For now, I would suggest a close reading of Badiou’s Second Manifesto for Philosophy which is for me a manual for real and ongoing change. What it may lack for you in terms of specific proposals is more than compensated by the startling clarity and coherence of his program. Again, this from memory:
The work of René Girard on mimetic desire—the scapegoat theory and the origins of violence—is also extremely relevant and useful. You don’t have to accept his Christian orientation to see the importance of imitation (of an originary trauma, in my reading) for group behaviour and how trauma can distort even the best intentions into violent eruptions. I am tracing two ideas that I see as important in understanding this: pharmakon (a bivalent term referring to the philter as both a poison and a remedy) and skandalon (another bivalent term meaning both stumbling block and foundation stone). Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus in “Plato’s Pharmacy” inspired René Girard to investigate the pharmakon and led to his penetrating analysis of the skandalon leading to his elaboration of the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational mechanism in human cultures.
A final thought. The slogan of your movement is an inspired one:
From: Christopher C___@___
Of course not! Go ahead and post my letter!
I would write more but I'm frickin’ exhausted from two days of non-stop meetings. Will write soon.
Be well, or you know, just ... be,