The Art of Disobedience

Interventions have historically taken many forms; from occupations to strikes, exhibitions and acts of sabotage, declarations or demonstrations, history is composed as a series of disobediences that form radical breaks with the status quo. What each of these interventions share in common is the impulse to both create consequential disturbances within the space and time of a historical present, while equally setting the stage for new times, new spaces, new activities, and new relations to emerge. Interventions in this sense do not only cause a stoppage, but also turbulently set new things into motion.

When Prometheus disobediently stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, he intervened in a specific set of relations which allowed for only some to have access to fire. Franz Kafka, reflecting on the myth of Prometheus, noted: “The legend tries to explain the inexplicable. As it comes out of the substratum of truth it has in turn to end in the inexplicable.” (432). The inexplicability described by Kafka was expressive of the novel social relations that emerged only after access to fire had been given to all; Prometheus’ disobedience not only extinguished an inequality that has been based in a historical reality, but generated the conditions in which novel forms of action could take place. Hannah Arendt would later go on to declare: “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” (178). Disobedience, in the face of overwhelmingly majoritarian obedience, also appears as miraculous, an impossible gesture that nonetheless appears.

Prometheus Steals the Fire 1982 by Peter De Francia born 1921

“Prometheus Steals the Fire”, Peter De Francia, 1982

While it is all too common to hear that our collective problems are caused by particular acts of deviance or individual transgressions (an investment bank that takes too big a risk, a refinery owner that ignores mandatory safety regulations, a police officer that loses their temper and strikes a demonstrator), they are only made possible within the systems and structures supported by the aggregate of our overwhelmingly common obedience. Our mass obedience is what allows us to be swept along by the tides of historical processes, to be indifferent to ongoing violences or even worse, to actively be complicit with and participate in them. The ethical responsibility to be disobedient, and the interventions necessitated by this responsibility, always is in relation to the normative obediences that shape the conditions of our actions and lives.

The myth of Prometheus stages intervention as the conspicuous act of a lone protagonist, who is then punished for his misdeeds by his fellow gods in order to restore balance. What would it mean to instead think of intervention as always-already being entangled with the multiple? In the midst of a global financial and climate crisis, the problems that face us are unquestionably collective. In response to these situations, any singular intervention could not hope to remedy such crises. If we are to imagine meaningful interventions in the face of these shared catastrophes, they must take the shape of collective disobediences, disobediences that produce the conditions for new forms of actions and interventions that collectively sweep against the historical currents and formations that produced the crises in the first place.

prometheus

Hercules later frees Prometheus from his chains; Another act of Disobedience.

The promise of intervention does not simply lie in the cessation of any singular injustice or in the destruction of an oppressive structure, but rather in the radical possibilities opened up by such ruptures, the possibility that something radically otherwise could come to be. This affirmation of the many possible radically ‘other’ worlds always on the precipice of this one are at the very center of every intervention. When we choose to intervene, to have an effect and make our actions come to matter in a situation, not only do we mean to transform or break away from already-ongoing behaviors and structures but also to put new rhythms and cycles into motion, to invent new ways of being-together in the world.

Every intervention is ultimately without promises, a kind of horizon of potentiality that requires deliberative risk-taking, relentless attentiveness, and tremendous endurance. Moreover, we can never know in advance whether an intervention will be successful, or be sure as to what it will bring about. In spite of this, intervention and disobedience remain urgently necessary. When allowing ongoing injustices to persist becomes a worse prospect than any contingent uncertainty brought about by our possible intervention, then we must act. The different modalities and forms that our interventions can take have the capacity to shape the ways in which echoes of possible futures fold over and onto the present, producing new directions that were illegible before the disobedient act.

History itself is the product of these disobediences and interventions that continuously reshape the boundaries of our imagination. When we choose to not participate in, forcefully alter, or even destroy something in our world, it is never a purely negative act. Rather, this is always a fundamental expression of our freedom in this world, our freedom to produce new means of being alive and relating to one another that exceed the already-existing institutions and circumstances. When we are born into the world, we inherit all that has come before us and are in some ways always bound up by and caught in the fervid momentum of history. Disobedience offers us the possibility of a break from this trajectory, a way of tracing tangents and counter currents, of realizing dynamic contradictions.

An intervention always takes place on the infinitely thin line between the already-actual and the actually-possible, a kind of differential movement between what already exists and what could exist instead, a subtle negation that incessantly produces. To be artfully disobedient in this sense is to carefully navigate the boundaries between action and negation, to manage our collective intensities in such a way as to introduce just enough entropy into a system to create the conditions for the constitution of radically ‘other’ worlds. Our present crises require devotedly Promethean acts, the kinds of intervention and disobedience which disturb the limits of the possible itself.

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