Aesthetics and Politics of Distraction: A Conversation with Geeta Patel

Geeta Patel is a Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Virginia. Her work is informed by translation theory, gender and sexuality studies, diaspora and subaltern historiography, and the history of science. Her current project, Financing Selves, on risk, insurance and pensions in South Asia, opens with the early East India Company archives and closes with labour movements in contemporary Sri Lanka.

On June 14th, 2018, Professor Patel gave a talk, titled, ‘In Theory/In Deed: Radical Philosophy in Action’, which was co-hosted by Critical Theory and Practice, and Cambridge University and College Union. KR editor Ayşe Polat met with her the following day, to discuss the possibilities of radical action in distraction, moving from her own experience organising in Sri Lanka.

Geeta Patel: So. Distraction.

Ayse Polat: Yes. Let us start with Distraction as a counterpoint to the politics of ‘focus’ in the Left. Who, and what, becomes a distraction, in the course of political organising?

GP: Well, let’s take up the principle that, if there is a sense of focus-politics, which is institutionalised in the way organising takes place, it determines the very form of the political. The form then changes how you understand the content, right?

AP: You mean to say what we perceive to be political?

GP: Exactly! “What Matters” in the political. This principle of focus-politics actually comes out of a lineage of history of science, a particular lineage in the history of science, which requires certain instruments of observation. It is visual, it is aesthetics. To focus, you require lenses, a sort of a microscope – focus is not something where you get refraction. Light has to be organised in a particular direction to arrive at a focal point, to arrive at its future. I think it is important to start with that idea because the role of temporality is crucial in establishing a focus point in political movements. The focus-politics in organising serves as a kind of end-futurity.

AP: Like a revolution, or the apocalypse?

GP: Yes. Which also has to do with the history of Perspectivalism. It is not to be conflated with relativism. They are both predicated on the existence of multiple, contesting truths.

In relativism, a different standpoint turns truth(s) into a lie. In perspectivalism, a such shift between perspectives render truth(s) invisible, unthinkable, silent. Thus, I am talking about how there are things that people who focus-and-focus wouldn’t necessarily imagine as part of the political, which is the very aesthetics of focus. You have to be a particular kind of person, you have to walk a particular kind of straight line.

Ironically, a lot of the images that I have of walking that kind of a straight line, are images from prisons, and being marched as a prisoner, or to one’s death. Images from carthorses, the blinker that is supposed to block out everything, that is supposed to distract your vision.

AP: …like distracting a horse from its path?

GP: From its proper path. There is a kind of propriety in the imperative to focus. That imperative forestalls, something like dif-fraction, or re-fraction. And I do want to think about the fraction. Because what fractionation does, is to allow you to actually have multiple subjects, multiple movements, all with a very different sense of political engagement, come together, form a coalition, do a political act. That come together, sometimes only for moments. To do a present.

AP: Last night, we discussed how fractions that form in political organising makes translation viable, possible, desirable. Translation that is not just between different languages, but between classed, gendered, racialised life-worlds. What then is the place for translation in movement aesthetics, that is visceral, that re-articulates gestures, mimics, posture, affection?

GP: Actually, what the aesthetics of focus doesn’t allow us is precisely translation. I mean, ‘that’ kind of translation. Because in translating somatic interactions, you are constantly at a loss for words. Literally. What happens during translation in organising is that being at a loss for words matters. And that is often constituted as a lack of focus.

But in that loss of focus is where political work is done – the care work, the reproductive work. And it is the kind of political work that matters, to the longevity of the project, which may very well be refracted and distracted from something conceived as an original task.

I teach this course that aims to make my students think about focus. It is about having them question all the things they have to read and learn, to think about what you are asked to do when you focus? For example: you are asked to drop out extraneous material, you are asked to leave aside things that matter, you are asked not to play. “Don’t look out the window! Please focus!” It is a constant sort of schooling in being a proper person. You are schooled into being a particular kind of political subject, moving and acting in a particular manner.

If you are actually planning to have critical engagements in a political movement, there is only going to be some viability if there is no schooling. If there is occasional, tentative coming-together, and then getting-distracted. Literally, dis-tracted: moved away from the original path. There has to be a kind of movement aesthetic, a kind of somatic experience. In a kind of movement where there is always a kind of School-Marm, to tell you how to act and how to resist the power! complete with a bad hat, and those really solid British shoes, and a pointer! you are constantly in a state of wanting to make music…

AP: …’we don’t need no education!’

GP: Absolutely! and the School-Marm is constantly pointing her fingers saying, “please write in a straight line!” There were constraints and schooling in left literary movements in India. It is not that they didn’t do aesthetic, they did, aesthetic was necessary to so many popular mobilisations.

AP: To compel people, you mean? To have an affective pull?

GP: You have to actually feel like something grabs your soul, your heart, pulls it in a direction. All political movements do aesthetics, including nationalism. And they all do their particular kind of aesthetic. My kind of aesthetic was about love. A love lyric, that becomes part of a political songbook.

What was interesting to me in the Left in South Asia was that so many of them wanted you to be a Maker, an Artist, who was not to be diverted from the path of the political in a particular aesthetic form. I always thought, growing up, even though we danced and sang and were marched off to prison, the left was the place I could belong to — and I still do.

But I wanted to understand the aesthetics of the left, and I came to understand something through a name that was basically excised from contemporary Indian literature. The poet I studied is called Meeraji, a bohemian poet born into a Kashmiri family in the British Punjab. He was a modernist, and an insistently political one, and he was constantly being told that sexuality and desire were distractions. That is the paradox of it: the people who say that these things are distractions, are the very people who do practice them.

AP: It is a powerful paradox, how you should not talk about worldly distractions – that you should keep it silent, keep it at a distance from you perceive to be political; One comes across such forms of silencing in the very language of some leftist movements in the form of sexism. What do you think about the role of gender and sexuality in your personal experience organising with Sri Lankan workers?

GP: For one, I don’t necessarily always assume that a demand for propriety is masculinist. Which is why I resort to the example of the female teacher, the School-Marm. Some of the worst, most rigid proponents of focus-thinking are the feminist activists I know. Now – the usual thing is to say that this is a masculinist form in the bodies of women. The form of power is masculinist. There is a point at which it became conventionalised as belonging to men.

The real question is, when did that happen? When did that body-political form of disciplining get associated —get completely entangled— with a gendered code? Because then you end up with a couple of women, and then you directly assume you are going to have fun, and…

AP: …no you don’t!

GP: Yes, it can be a nightmare. Some women are in a really bad male-drag. They suck at male drag. Part of the project of actually thinking about power is learning how to be vulnerable. I am sorry to drag artists, I meant no insult! A good drag artist can play with different vulnerabilities. Which is why I said it is ‘bad’, whereas drag is great. This is shit-drag. It is interesting to think about what it means, for left movements to follow the aesthetic conventions of shit-drag.


GP: I was thinking about playing with an idea, and I don’t know how far I’ll go because we don’t have a dictionary nearby. The idea of dis-tract: dis, and tract. To “dis” someone means to actually put them down. And then the idea of the “tract” …

AP: This makes me think of the School-Marm who try and command your story, your path. They have to keep you on the right tract and dis you in your place. Demand you do all the right things and say all the right things. Refusal means Betrayal! “Don’t be stupid! Don’t be a sell-out!” Don’t you think that this is how the logic of power poisons any chance at coalitions or alliances?

GP: Especially with coalitions. A coalition is a bunch of people who are not in an agreement. One of the things that will turn the coalition into something else, is a kind of hierarchy-model where a sovereign body will make everyone fall back in line. People come to a movement from all sorts of different tracts – dissing completely dissolves a coalition. Because the form of a coalition is that it is an improper series of transactions. One of the fictions about how left organising works is this idea that at some point all movements will cohere together. Always cohesive. Always coherent. And now that we are in a new, post-modern, post-liberal form…We will get something different.

A part of the work that I do is to talk about how groups of Sri Lankan women, who sometimes have got nothing to do with one another, came together, and talked with me about their pension contracts. Another part is that I look at the historical work that has been done on the subject of worker’s movements, I realize that this idea of cohesion assumes almost a Fordist model of production in how organising is supposed to work – this system of mass production that marked the early 20th century, that began with the Ford Motor Company. It is as if we are meant to mass-produce the revolutionary subject the same way company workers produced cars on the assembly line.

The Fordist model of production actually has a very short life-span in the history of Capitalism. There were a lot of shapes that resistance took before, and quite a bit after. What is interesting to me is the kinds of ways in which people and movements in 18th and 19th century South Asia resisted British colonialism. They were refracted. They did not converge. They were moved by different ideals, they moved in different directions. They don’t hit a timeline. They are not equivalent to one another. There is no equivalence of form.

What history shows is that it is the most banal form the Left can take, this desire for equivalence. Refraction is all about incommensurability. It is about a fundamental difference in form and plurality of meaning in movement organising.

AP: Shall we move then to the 14-day industrial action taken by Cambridge UCU, and the National UCU of United Kingdom? Can we talk about the accumulation of different forms of labour in coalition-work? I am referring in particular to the reproductive labour on the part of the students, the organising labour on the part of the union members, whose end-product was the performance and performers of the pickets – including the very people who broke the pickets.

GP: …including the very act of drawing the picket line with chalk! What is important is that you had to teach people the aesthetic of the picket, as a sort of dance form. It is actually a dance form, if you think about how in the US, you have to march along the picket line: you are not allowed to stand still lest they shut down the picket. Or in South Asia, where people march in milling groups or go in a circle. There is a choreography to the pickets. And that choreography is a kind of bodily aesthetic.

AP: Don’t you think that aesthetic is also predicated on an agonistic relation to power?

GP: It is a counter, it is not an anti-, but a counter-.

AP: In the sense that you still have to actively engage with power?

GP: Exactly. And it has to be active because your body, in the command to labour, is active. Even though there is the sense that intellectual labour is abstract, but I don’t know where the hell did that come from. It is completely somatic! Your body is thinking, labouring, so the picket line has to be somatic and active. And it is interesting to me, that some of the people who would actually do the idea of focus, wouldn’t understand that even as you are talking of the end-goal, the pensions; on the picket-line, what you have to teach people is the dance form. Just as what Marcel Mauss talked about in his little essay on technologies: you have to train people in body-techniques.

AP: Training had to take place on the pickets, though, as opposed to the schooling. You can’t antagonise on the picket. When you begin calling names, you walk on or after individuals and actively antagonise them, you know they are going to shut you down. So, within the picket, someone has to train people, you have to train each other. What makes a difference between schooling and training?

GP: I think that is interesting – you know. How to do it? How to train —and not school— each other? There is an assumption that the only way to respond to power is antagonism. But when things actually got really bad in Sri Lanka, people were asked to stay under the radar. There is something to be said for going to prison. But there is also something to be said for staying out of prison. I think the mistake is to say there is only one way of doing it. Which is going to prison.

Have you seen Salt of the Earth? It is a neorealist drama based on a real industrial action that took place in 1951 in New Mexico. It is about striking. It is about the form of a strike, who is included in the strike. It starts with a beautiful close-up vignette of the labour of women’s bodies, thus upending the question of the gendered labour of the strike, and the assumption of a certain kind of labour as the only kind with which the strike can take shape.

There are ways in which you are constituted as complicit in power. It is important and interesting to think how we are all complicit in power dynamics – to think about the class politics of a strike. At its extreme, if somebody is going to get picked-up, it may mean their family goes hungry afterwards. Some people have the financial wherewithal to be able to get picked-up. I send my white partner to the check-out at the airport for a reason. You put people who can pay for a lawyer and can afford to go to prison at the front.

AP: I think the closest approximation to this that we have organising in academia are the institutional hierarchies.

GP: That is a part of class.

AP: But isn’t that class-in-the-making? I see it as the difference between hosts who get to stay or rot here, and those who come and leave as precarious guests. Then, you have the undergraduate community, who have a very different perspective, not because they are not invested in the academia per se, but again, the temporality through which they conceive of the strike, and what the strike has given them. They ask, ‘what remains of the strike?’ instead of having a win-or-lose focus.

GP: Absolutely. In some ways, it is institutional hierarchies. But when I say “class”, I mean something rather complicated. It is a complicated notion of local and socio-political capital. It is not necessarily based on economic capital, but the idea of a future, local accumulation of capital. It is about the permanence, prestige and the position you acquire in a place like here, in Cambridge. It is about being able to stay here and accumulate all that. The differences in-between have to be given consideration, in the aesthetics and narratives of the strike. If not, you are actually losing the point of why everybody is there.

AP: Is it not just about losing ‘the point’, though, but the remainders, the possibilities? There is a vast difference among workers within a given institution that operate on accumulated and projected capital. I think there is no equivalence of form or meaning between they give and what they get from the strike. As you said, some people expect an end-futurity: either a revolution or an apocalypse. Others may wish but expect neither.

GP: This is why I am so interested in fantastic narratives, the fables. The fable of a strike is that it is a uniformly directed set of actions directed towards a uniformly acceptable goal. Whereas I think that from its earliest forms, it hasn’t necessarily been that. I think what we need to talk about is a way in which to allow the history of different forms of organised resistance and social movements to continue to take shape in this particular time-place. There is more than one kind of resistance to power.

AP: Differences have to resonate, though. De te fabula narratur. One has to realise that about you the tale is told; the story applies to you.

GP: True: unless that is the case, you won’t get a coalition. People will want and desire different things. You may want nothing out of an industrial action, even. You may want the feeling of a place where everything is not sedimented into stone. You may want to feel a kind of engagement that has a political core. You may just want to spend some time on a picket line and give yourself to the idea of a picket leisure. This is a country of pubs – picket line is a replacement for pub-time! At the same time…

AP: Well, sometimes there are pub brawls.


AP: How do you think were the strikes conceived by power? Was it a disruption, or a distraction? Is there a difference?

GP: A big one. One of the ways in which people in power, administrators, often try and narrate the work of a strike, is that it is just a distraction. They say, don’t be distracted from your work! So, it is interesting to think about, in our previous discussion, just how much the left formations of propriety conform to the same rhetoric as institutional forms of propriety. I think unless left organisers actually understand the ways in which they are complicit in the work of power, we won’t be able to understand and organise different forms of labour, do multiple kinds of movement work, for they will be labelled distractions from the proper work, from the bigger fight!

AP: I think we are back to the question of aesthetics. Yes, the strike changed a lot of people’s perception of the political. However, a lot of the reproductive work that went into, sustained, and will be taken up after the strike will be invisible to the aesthetics of focus-politics. Isn’t this where power comes back into play, between who deems what a distraction?

GP: What we are saying, is that distraction is the vocabulary and the syntax of power. Whether it is the people who you are standing against, or the people who you are with. It is through distraction that the capillary work of power travels. It is interesting to think what the aesthetics of distraction is, instead of focus-politics. The articulate categories of labour and joy.

AP: As we were talking about state violence yesterday, you mentioned how power has a way of imposing a sense of urgency, a temporal violence, that renders fun unaffordable. The fun of having drinks together, listening to each other, because you always have to direct your gaze to Power! fight the Power! speak truth to Power! that is always out and above you. But where is Power, when we can’t even speak the truth to each other, or to one’s self?

GP: But that is exactly when power becomes the organising principle of life. Actually, what is lost is you. Your entire orientation, to use Sara Ahmed’s term, is an orientation along a particular vector, with a particular focus. And in a strike, a portion of that orientation should be on that vector, but a portion of that should be refracted, distracted, scattered.

AP: What would you say is the role of translation in valorising certain kinds of ‘distractive’ work? Translation as a predicate of genuine communication, that takes into account spoken word but also gestures, mimics, postures, affection?

GP: First, translation allows the coalition to move together. And that is the work of distraction. That is the work that distraction can do. It can help two political subjects, who are not in an agreement, to move and mend and work together.

AP: What I understand is you should be attentive to what is illegible to you, to be able to work on and form coalitions, to act in tandem with people.

GP: Yes, it is, because distraction is disorientation. A necessary disorientation. You can’t do a political act, bring in people from different tracts, keep them on the move, when the organising principle of your movement is an external, monolithic Power.

AP: Can we talk of kindness as political work, for the internal dynamics and longevity of a movement? I feel like temporality is crucial. Power does not allow you to live at your own pace, write your own story, walk your own tract. Kindness gives you back the time and place to stretch, to speak. Kindness feels like suspension.

GP: Certainly. It is translation that allows for kindness in its most tender forms and affection; to speak, to listen, to be at a loss for words. It is also interesting how the pace is so important. And the pauses. The idea of something slowing is also something picking up — thinking of the Pause as active, as work, as labour.

AP: … or thinking of kindness as labour. Distraction as political work.

Ayşe Polat is a PhD student at the History Faculty, University of Cambridge. Her research explores on networks of people smuggling and trafficking in late 19th century Beirut and Alexandria. Her academic interests and existential willies comprise urban politics, labor history, and the invention of immigration in the long 20th century.