Objects don’t resist, subjects do. “Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” Can subjects be objects? Can subjects be formed into ‘things that don’t resist?’ When is a ‘subjective object?’ Or subjunctive subject – as Theorist Fred Moten attends.
In such turbulent times as ours, we might want to address the opening statement’s call by evoking the object – ‘gun.’ Let us be permitted to subsume subjects and objects into a ‘baseness’ as objects. Guns are objects that only act when in the hands-up-don’t shoot of a subject. Circle complete. Guns are subjectified by the slogan “guns don’t kill people…subjects do.” Can this be reversed; can guns transform from object to subject? Is this interminable circle ever complete?
This is not a closed gathering – in a Derridean sense as consignation: “By consignation, we do not only mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, the act of assigning residence…but here the act of consigning through gathering together signs.” (Archive Fever 3) While Still They Persist is a literal closing as a gathering of signs, let’s open the circle by way of Moten’s cut-and-augmenta-tion procedure. In the introduction to his book, In the Break, Moten provides us the im/possibil-ity of thinking the subjunctive subjectivity of ob-jects. He proclaims: “The history of blackness is a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” (Moten 1) Objects (like guns) can morph into subjects (killing people). Moten apprehends blackness by way of Marx’s im/possible ‘speaking commodity.’ The question of the commodity who speaks is central to Moten’s project of revaluating value, and something we hope to review – and will return to shortly.
While immediately framed through a racial lens, we can employ his thinking to rethink our compre-hension of protest ephemera. What’s at stake is a deeper conversation about subjectivity of objects. What’s at stake, in this critically concentrated mo-ment of upheaval – some are calling Trumpism – is a revaluation of value: the value of objects, of speaking, of subjectivity, of structures-of-power and knowledge.
We can use Still They Persist, an exhibition of archived mat(t)ers to begin an inquiry into an ob-ject’s powers – powers of transformation, trans-mutation, trans-mat(t)er-ation. Perhaps objects do a/object in the following ways: through external and, by return
After being t/asked to respond to this exhibition on protest ephemera I inquired about images for study. Upon request, I was greeted with a some-what appropriate response: “we don’t have any right now.” Why would anyone archive that which is not supposed to last, implicitly not meant for the arche? By definition, ephemera possess no lasting value, as their use is short-lived, only for the moment. The curious ambition of preserving that which is not meant for preservation lays claim to the revaluation of value. What or where is this value? There is something to the protest-poster-as-object that a/objects to its non-value telos. Let us propose, if only for the moment, that the value of the ephemera in question is in its ability to re-sist – escaping the archive’s logic.
Contextually obvious is a resistance towards power, which protest materials are meant to con-front. With slogans such as “They Tried to Bury Us” and “DEMOCRACY NOT DICKTATOR,” the objects included in this exhibition, much like the gun, were animated by human subjects. Both subject and object unified in a movement; a move towards a regime of alternative facts, and bluster-ing but clumsy toxic masculinity. Our sense is that it’s obvious to lay immediate claim to the use of this mat(t)er in protests, which proclaim that non-whites matter. Activated by energized subjects, these objects aid in the protest as an act of resis-tance. “Posters don’t protest, people do” is much to say about nothing. Again, annularly sealed?
But if we now permit a return to the revaluation of value by way of Moten’s interest in Marx’s speak-ing commodity, we might be able to cut-and-aug-ment the obvious closed circle, thus locating an object’s value: innate resistance. Marx imagines a speaking commodity gaining presence through the exchange with another. Beyond ventriloquism – forced upon the object from without – Marx’s commodity is imagined to speak, as a means of expressing its “(exchange)-value.” (Moten 10)
But check this, as soon as the object is subjunc-tively provided a voice, “If commodities could speak they would say,” Marx rips out their vocal chords, “so far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond.” (Moten 8) What Moten suggests is the object’s impossible chemical substance ‘is’ Marx’s secret: the commodity actually speaks. What we can utilize from Moten in our quest for the value of an object – its resistance – is that the object actually speaks. Fred Moten thinks this by thinking the precondition to Marx’s im/possibility. In order for Marx to think the commodity as impossibly speak-ing, we must assume its ability to say. Malcolm says, “make it plain:” For the commodity to gain voice through the exchange with another, the pre-supposition of its ability towards speech is.
That right there is one crutch of the theory of value as resistance this exhibition can provide. Moten says it plain, “the truth about the value of the commodity is tied precisely to the impossibility of its speaking, for if the commodity could speak it would have intrinsic value, it would be infused with a certain spirit, a certain value given not from the outside, and would therefore, contradict the thesis on value –that it is not intrinsic – that Marx assigns it.” (Moten 13)
Maybe it is this spirit (of which Moten speaks), interior to the object, which provides value from within? Perhaps it’s this interiority from which resistance emerges. Nietzsche reminds us that spirit, “is sure of itself, speaks softly; it prefers to be hidden, keeps you waiting.” (Nietzsche 81) Articulating these two thinkers we might make a case for the ephemera in this exhibition as objects of resistance, storing, im/possibly archiving, an inner spirit. This spirit not only speaks (softly), it possesses the subject as it keeps you waiting. Fred Moten adds further support: “While subjectiv-ity is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its object, it is troubled by a dispossessive force objects exert such that the subject seems possessed.”(Moten 1) The revaluation of value displaces the subject with an object. It allows us to imagine an object’s subjective voice.
If the object can speak, what does it say? While these surfaces faced with slogans do speak in support of resistance, the subjunctive possibility of an interior voice makes them more interesting to consider as resistant objects. It seems as though they say more by saying less. Much like an argu-ment with a lover, less is more. Silence is a hell of a resistance. In a kind of sado-masochistic man-ner, the child or teen begs for punishment as the depressed, disappointed guardian admonishes with a fatigued shrug of the shoulder—a surrender without voice.
To surrender voice in disappointment is an in-terior withdraw, a reduction. Might we witness a synonymic reduction in the term arche. We previ-ously employed arche as it assisted in question-ing the forced relation between protest ephemera and archives. Derrida provides us a peek into the familia(r) of archive and arche. He circles when speaking of archive: “In a way, the term indeed re-fers, as one would correctly believe, to the arkhē in the physical, historical, or ontological sense, which is to say to the originary, the first, the princi-ple, the primitive, in short to the commencement.” (Derrida 2) Following Moten through Derrida, we can reach the beginning, by way of the end of the loop through observing a precondition to Moten’s speaking commodity: the genealogy of the term object.
Derived from the Latin objectus, meaning “lying before, opposite,” object as noun begins with ob-, a word forming element meaning: toward, against, across, down. You see, internal to the structure of the matter of our revaluation of value, lays resistance. If not convinced, the active object-as-verb circles the following genealogy: Fourteenth century, “bring forward in opposition,” by way of Latin objectus, past participle of objectare, “to cite as grounds for disapproval, set against, oppose,” literally, “to put or throw before or against.”
This etymological game displays that the pre-condition to Moten’s value-filled object is the definitional value all objects might maintain: the capacity to resist. Through the superimposition, or in a sense performative move, of projecting Fred Moten’s cut-and-augmentation procedure over-and-against Moten’s speaking commodity we can see what he might be getting at in terms of spirit.
That the object not only resists, but extends a propriative exertion1 onto the subject; subjects are animated by objects – again reversible. Perhaps the ephemera in this exhibition, now having non/value, further display such value in their abil-ity to grasp, hold, possess the viewing subject. Objects of a resistance become objects exerting a resistance. Now we understand the archiving of ephemera in this exhibition: to store and main-tain a continuously rotating value; an inner arche; arche-towards-resistance. Subjects don’t resist, ephemera do?
1 Moten uses this phrasing to speak the possibility of an object to possess the subject as a force animated by the object on the subject.