Movement in the Pause

1. The fragmented perspective of this text departs less from a fixed point than from a longitudinal line. It straddles a necropolitical meridian, linking the United States and Brazil under Trump and Bolsonaro, as well as their ideological, financial, and corporate advisers and enablers. To move along the necropolitical meridian over the past three months of the novel coronavirus pandemic is to become aware of the transnational mirroring of federal (non)policies that each country now offers to one another, and to realize that what we are facing is a novel contaminant experiment in neoliberal governmentality. Both countries are creating, before our eyes and at dizzying speed, what Brazilian political philosopher Vladimir Safatle has recently called “suicidal states … to be exported” (see his extraordinary “Welcome to the Suicidal State,” which opens this ConTactos series). Using an expression by Paul Virilio—but adding to it an urgency and socio-political lucidity precipitated by the ways Brazil has managed, with utmost efficiency, the transformation of the novel coronavirus pandemic into a true necropolitical act of state-sponsored genocide targetted at black, indigenous, and poor populations—we can see Safatle’s definition of the “suicidal state” as the logical endgame of the neoliberal dismantling of liberal democracy.

2. To take a critical ambulatory perspective along this line of death is also to propose a methodology for thinking about the current Brazilian and US suicidal (mis)management of the pandemic through the trope of movement. Not because dance and movement theory happen to be my fields of research and work, but because of the fact that the conditions of possibility for action, the conditions of possibility for imagining and enacting action are predicated on an ongoing struggle around different aesthetic, philosophical, and political conceptions of what movement is, of what movements does, and of who owns movement. As some populations in different parts of the US and Brazil start to emerge from more or less severe lockdowns, from more or less local states of emergency, from different states of calamity, as the pandemic ravages communities following spatial and temporal coordinates traced by lines of poverty and exclusion, a real life-and-death battle over the political power of movement and the political force of stillness is being fought. In that struggle, the logic of capital acceleration, the logic of lockdowns and generalized confinement, the logic of social distancing and of remote interactivity, the logic of (white) expansion(ism) and (economic) contraction all presuppose—as well as reify and enforce—a certain hegemonic understanding of the relations between power and movement, subjectivity and movement, and agency and movement.

3. To think about activity, and therefore, about inactivity, over the last three months of the pandemic is to think about how the (mis)management of the health crisis has been predicated on fine tuning differentials of mobility and in finding politically palatable words to describe policy decisions about restrictions on movement. Despite the many different expressions chosen across nations and within regions to designate the varying modalities of social distancing, movement restrictions, and quarantine, those expressions always reveal a political-kinetic unconscious informing the social choreography being imposed on the general population. Hovering between suspension of the “normal” flow of life (as in the expression chosen by NY State, “New York in Pause”) and stoppage of the “normal” flow of life (as in “confinement  or “lockdown”, the latter expression used, in English, also in several Brazilian cities), one thing is certain: movement has been placed under house arrest.

4. To many (actually, according to polls, to the large majority of the population both in Brazil and in the US), to call it as it is would have been a simpler and more ethical public health choice in this pandemic. Not a pause or a suspension, not a shelter in place or a lockdown, and definitely not a stoppage, but rather: a mutually supportive withdrawal from, and slowing down of, the public pace of daily life in order to demonstrate absolute respect for, and support of, the lives of unknown others. An absolute respect for another’s death. It is not that hard to imagine this possibility of calling for a slow down and for sustained supportive apartness. This could have been promoted by governments and their agencies. But neoliberal necropolitics in the suicidal states of Brazil and the United States has nothing to do with this type of kinder imagination towards life in general.

5. In the lockdown, in the pause, in the suspension, as our movements, gestures, and actions endure radical transformations, compressed as they are to the limits defined by our walls, we soon realize that nothing has really stopped—not inside our homes and not in the external world, where the homeless survive at the mercy of more or less planned neglect, more or less police brutality, more or less charity. Home-sheltered, we realize that what the current state of emergency declares, above all, is not respect for life given that in the emergency; the death of disenfranchised populations is not even a question for capital and power to contemplate for even a second. Mostly, what the emergency allows is the issuing of permissions to move: who, when, how, and where. Locked in place, we realize that the management, surveillance, and control of movement has become a central fact in the pandemic. The metaphors of “pause”, “home-sheltering,” “suspension of activity” only mask the hyper-activity of capital and police (capital as police) throughout the confinement and as the confinement.

6. In the exception prompted by the pandemic, bodies working in four professional categories had permission to circulate: police, medical workers, those handling the corpses (morticians, grave-diggers, etc.), and those laboring along the food chain (from harvesters/butchers to middlemen; from restaurateurs to garbage collectors). Not that everyone else was not working, but their/our movements had been curtailed. The unemployed were kept busy spending endless, countless hours on their phones and computers or standing in not-so-socially-distanced lines to file for governmental help, or trying to find another job. The employed were busy spending endless, countless hours on their phones and computers while sitting in their homes now finally turned into an always-open-for-business workspace. And, if some could still circulate, everyone else no longer needed to be tracked by the electronic devices of what Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism.” Everyone else had been trapped. In the confinement, we had been, above all, made available.

7. In confinement, we experience a radical rearrangement of the range of our actions and movements, while we become extra-aware of the absolutely extra-individual, communal, collective, societal, and even planetary impact of the smallest of our gestures. (Judith Butler has written a beautiful essay on this theme in this series). In confinement, while allegedly standing still in the supposed pause, we experience both the hyper-agitation of politicians and corporations trying to keep things, capital, and commodities moving without friction, and we also sense that perhaps another, non-compulsive, anti-capitalist, non-opportunistic logic and kinetics for the political awaits at and as the standstill. Sheltering in place, we perceive how the pandemic has become an enormous opportunity for neoliberal power to reassert itself as “the rise of antidemocratic politics in the West,” to quote Wendy Brown. Standing in confinement, what we hear is the relentless, spellbinding, dizzying hyperactive noise of police, corporate and financial capital, and neofascist kinetics threading (and treading on) the necro-meridian of the Americas. And yet, there is power in our stillness.

8. Liberal modernity has aligned, to a point of total fusion, the notion of freedom to the notion of free individual movement. It is almost impossible for the inheritors of the liberal political kinetic unconscious to imagine freedom without aligning it, immediately and spontaneously, to the notion of “free movement” (even when thinking, for instance, of freedom of expression, we imagine it as the free movement of thought). This fusion immediately opens up a problem, revealing a foundational kinetic contradiction at the heart of the (i)logic of liberal democratic subjectivity. It is this contradiction that current neoliberal neofascism tries to solve, namely: since movement is the promise at the end of liberal freedom, it must be policed, managed, controlled, and surveilled.

9. As every dancer knows (or as any mover who understands from lived experience what Hélio Oiticica once called “the immanence of the act” also knows) as movement moves, it tends to offer, in infinite flourishing, ever new and unforeseen possibilities for (more, other) movement. The flourishing of perpetually moving possibilities, that opaque blurring that is potentiality in action, undoes the boundaries holding the fiction of the autonomous, auto-mobile, liberal subject. Thus, the contradiction at the heart of liberal kinetics: it is through movement that one escapes disciplinary apparatuses of capture; but it is also through movement that systems of power drill and break-in a subject into subjection, like one breaks-in a wild animal, as Henri Lefevbre so well noted.

A movement and a political force is flooding the streets through contactual movement of improvised sociality, dismantling the old and illegitimate contracts of liberal and neoliberal kinetic management and policing.

10.  What is movement, where does it exist, how can it be identified, how should it be implemented and performed, and above all: how can it be predicted? Once movement became the primary vector of subjectivization for modernity and liberal governance (i.e., for white colonial expansionism and its logistics, for global capital and its kineticism, for manufactural gestural procedures in the production-line, for the permanent motor-skilled education of the citizen as the self-driven auto-motivated auto-mobile) it became crucially important for state power to get itself involved, literally and directly, in the production and management of movement. Particularly, in defining movement’s ontology, its bodies, its scope, its realm and its universal laws.

11.  Let’s call any movement that results from the action of external forces (not only as in the mechanics behind Newton’s first universal law of motion, but also any movement that is initiated by the force of an authorially authoritative choreographer’s word, or from a sovereign’s command, or from a corporate directive, or from a patriarchical dictum, or from a white-expansionist slur, or from a police hailing) “transcendent” or “forced movement” — following Gilles Deleuze following François Chatelet. Once it is captured by power to become transcendent and forced as external force from above, movement becomes not a right, but a grace, granted to fuel the perpetual mobilization of normativities.

12.  Neoliberal kinetics extends but also moves away from the previous liberal logic of movement management. In neoliberal non-governance, logistics stretches the liberal kinetic project to its limit, while a different, simultaneous, and overlapping understanding of movement and its control erupts. It is not enough to format, impose, manage, police, and predict movement as in the liberal kinetic logic. It is movement itself, movement as such, that must be colonized from within. This is achieved by the creation of total extractive activities over individual experiences of movement. There is no limit whatsoever for this colonization and monetization of the kinetic—not the body’s flesh, not even its pain. Sex, love, sleep, lack of sleep, skin, teeth (preferably straight and “extra-white”), fat, moods, muscles, inactivities as well as activities…everything becomes an occasion for mercenary plundering of everything that can be plundered behind the enemy’s line. The enemy, of course, is life and its actions.

13.  The neoliberal turn is also a turn towards the domestic. The confinement of subjectivity within a freely desired self-interested sheltering in place that precedes the pandemic reveals that the neoliberal consensual body is no longer agent of (its own) movement (of its own life) but it is now movement’s very ground, grave, mine, and sieve. Its “free movements” are totally reflexive, knee-jerk. If liberal kinetic power needed the continuous policed domestication of the streets, neoliberal kineticism requires corporate extractive management of the body’s impulsive motions at home—where home is defined as wherever the latest app can reach you. In Pornotopia, Paul Preciado writes of the early outlines of this neoliberal logic of total contraction of the disciplined liberal motion in the open into neoliberal domestic-cellular confinement-as-availability. Preciado describes the formation of a new domestic-normative body permanently plugged to the electric pulses of capital and always available to engage in constant labor and impulsive consumerism.

14.  And yet, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and Henri Bergson and Suely Rolnik and Fred Moten and Christina Sharpe insist, movement remains onto-politically that which will never be fully captured. Movement is not merely what enables (a subject to) escape. It is fugitivity itself. Such is the perpetual self-generating paradoxical paralogics that movement brings to both liberal and neoliberal power systems: it is the primary tool for drilling discipline and controlling flesh; but it is also the only possible means to break down discipline, to initiate control’s own undoing.

15.  Who moves, when one moves, how one moves, where one moves…  those remain key choreopolicing questions. Just as Franz Fanon discovered that to be a flaneur in a French city in the twentieth century was a kinetic impossibility for a black man, so every black driver in the contemporary United States knows that the identification of modernity with the “automobile” subject is a promise daily and deadly denied to those driving while black. Or, for that matter, jogging while black. Or walking while black. Merely living while black. The reverse is also true: every black person in the US and in Brazil (and in Europe, and in the extended colonies of the planet…) knows that not to move is also not an option.

16.  Trapped between moving and not-moving, having been made available, locked down, the task at hand is to refuse that the conditions conditioning movement derive from transcendent or external forces and to refuse the insertion of kinetic impulses at the level of flesh and desire. The task is to refuse Newton’s first “universal law”: to refuse a world where bodies are deemed to remain inert until an external force (be it a targeted ad, a presidential tweet, or a hit on the loins by a police baton) prompts them to move along the proper circuits of movement. The task is to refuse the reflexive conditioning of neoliberal knee-jerk kinetic self-interest being inserted 24/7 directly into our nervous systems. The task becomes of finding, in the pause, a non-conditioned and immanent collective movement. A movement where stillness is simultaneously refusal, potentiality, and action. A new choreopolitics, an anti-choreopolicing, where the choice between moving and not moving becomes secondary, tertiary, irrelevant. A slow movement motioning fugitivity and effecting the amplification of social contactual mobilization.

17.  This is the knowledge generated haptically in the collective stand-apart: contact is not only what happens when skin touches skin. Contact, and particularly the ethical contact of a solidary collective sociality, derives from the mutual engagement in the formation of a more sensual and intense field. A force field of proximal common action activated in and through a prolonged standing in close affective distance.

18.  In an interview to The New Yorker published on June 3rd, Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter stated: 

My view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on. People who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally, and have time to think about why they have been struggling so much, and they are thinking, ‘This actually isn’t right and I want to make time, and I have the ability to make time now and make my concerns heard.’ So I think it is markedly differently in terms of the volume of demands we are hearing.

To become tender, to become sensitive to what is going on, what has been going on, moving the necropolitics of the Americas, as an outcome of the collective stand-in-place in the pandemic is the new move of immanent choreopolitics surging from within its slowed-down premises, from its non-Newtonian physics, from what Michelle Wright has called “the physics of blackness.” A movement and a political force is flooding the streets through contactual movement of improvised sociality, dismantling the old and illegitimate contracts of liberal and neoliberal kinetic management and policing. It’s as if the pause was the necessary condition, the slow catalyst, for what Brian Meeks has recently described as the “upswell” of anti-racist, anti-police, anti-anti-black protests in the US. In contactual sociality, BLM activists demonstrate that they know that the streets are the borderless home of those who have always moved without a permit.

19.  Tina Campt recently associated the collective slowning-down prompted by the pandemic and home-sheltering and the massive mobilizations after the murder of George Floyd: “the pandemic has indeed forced us to slow down, but in slowing down it has intensified the struggle; it has amplified a slow practicing of witnessing and an intimate practice of care. Care enough to listen to those we have lost.” There is a kinetics of care proposed here by Campt, immanent to anti-anti-black political struggle.

20.  What else did we find out about political mobilization and political micro-perceptions as we stand in confinement? We saw, for sure, how both capital and fascism freak out with the possibility of any slowing down of their frantic kineticism. Thus, the raucous caravans of automobiles blasting their horns and waving Brazilian flags in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, Fortaleza demanding the re-opening of the economy. Thus, the constant demands for immediate return to the frantic circulation of the economy, even if that means tens of thousands of new deaths. Thus, Trump constantly creating and promoting a permanent state of pandemonium. Tender contact is what neoliberal fascism cannot stand.

21.  Back to Brazil—where the necropolitics of the suicidal state only increased since Safatle’s diagnosis in early April. In early June, several Ministers were caught on tape discussing in a presidential cabinet meeting how the pandemic had given them a golden opportunity to commit faster and much more efficient ecocide and genocide. Meanwhile, counter-movements of resistance have happened thanks to the proliferation of community-based practices of care, predicated exactly on the imperative to listen to those we have lost, as Campt evoked. I recall a dialogue between theater director Márcio Abreu and Afro-Brazilian studies scholar and poet Leda Martins, a month into the lockdown in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, respectively. Participating of a weekly initiative of Núcleo Experimental de Performance at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, that invites intellectuals, artists, scholars, curators, activists, and masters of traditional knowledge to engage in dialogue live in their YouTube channel, and thus help support the hospitals of UFRJ, Martins talked on how mourning those who have died and will die in this pandemic is essential. But she also reminded us of all the other countless deaths that occurred before, are occurring now, and will continue to occur after the pandemic is over—thanks to the willful planning of necropower: the deaths (by the bullet or by famine) of trans* people, of women, of children, of indigenous populations, of political refugees, of climate refugees, of entire species. In words reminiscent of Tina Campt’s, Martins reminded us how we must embrace this moment of standstill and listen to all those voices, and act. We must extend the movement of those who have lost lives and continue their fight.

22.  In the pause, what straddles the meridian line of violence that sutures the Americas is the intensification of the struggle as movement.

—Rio de Janeiro, June 21-28, 2020

*A longer version in Portuguese of this article appeared online in Pandemia Crítica, Editora n-1, São Paulo, Brasil.

André Lepecki is Full Professor at New York University, where he is Chair of the Department of Performance Studies. He obtained his PhD from New York University and is author of several books on dance and performance theory, including Exhausting Dance: Performance and Politics of Movement (2006), translated into 13 languages and published in Portuguese by AnnaBlume Editora, and most recently Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (2016). As an independent curator, he has created projects for: Hayward Gallery, London; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Sydney Biennial, 2016; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; MoMA-PS1, among other institutions in Europe, Brazil, and the US. In 2008, he was awarded “Best Performance” by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA). Since 2003, he has co-created actions and performances with Eleonora Fabião.