Notes Concerning the Black Clothing Worn by Some Anarchist Men and Muslim Women

  • Posted on: 9 January 2018
  • By: thecollective

via dingpolitik

A performative/spontaneous talk I gave two or three years ago at the Modernist Studies Association. Recorded and transcribed, and uploaded here.

[special thanks to allan antliff and roger rothman]

St. John of the Cross wrote in his Ascent of Mount Carmel that “understanding can understand naught save that which is contained within.” This lesson was repeated three hundred years later when Jacques-Alain Miller claimed that “[o]ne only understands what one thinks one already knows.” I can not pretend to introduce anything new here except to claim that the function of understanding is also to make an advance on anxiety. There where anxiety seemed to be, within the work of listening, are formed certain casual “habits.” A habit is a bit like a schema or a heuristic in that it provides the subject with an interpretative framework for the utterances of others.

My claim is that the work of listening is directly implicated in the concerns of the aesthete. In other words, the work of listening is bound up with what Immanuel Kant referred to as the judgment of taste. Those who listen are not only passive receivers of an auditory exchange – the active construction of meaning by those who listen is of such significance that psychoanalysts have developed an ethics of listening with which to conduct their daily work. We might even claim that listening is precisely the mode of meaning production for the other who speaks; the speaker being reduced, in some sense, to the role of consumer.

The work of listening therefore rubs up against all sorts of aesthetic judgements, including those judgments made in the world of fashion. The word “habit” is closely linked to the Latin habitus and is not far removed from habilis. The former has to do with “clothing for the body,” clothing which, etymology reveals, introduces a logic of being “possessed,” “managed,” or “held.” “Having,” substitutes, as Lacan once put it, “one object for another;” “clothes” act as a substitute for the “body.”

On the other hand, the word habilis, which, like habitus, is rooted in habere, adds the association of “habilitation.” The habilitation is concerned with a type of recognition for those who demonstrate the appropriate understanding. What is most curious about the word habilis is that it carries a strong sense of being about “fit.” Habilitation ensures that we are recognized by the fit of our clothes as being or having some body rather than no body. This aspect of the function of understanding is so confirmed in our cultural vernacular that we have developed a special idiom which expresses that “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

Recall Marshall McLuhan’s claim that clothing is a direct extension of the outer surface of the body. In other words, it extends the skin’s tactility and insulation. His point was that clothing keeps us from seeing the “whole picture” of the nude body. This type of body is what clinicians refer to as “imaginary,” that is, the body envisioned as if it were reducible to that which is discernible, and not, as it were, as a limitation or excess. It also can not be divorced from the hidden body, which is no less imaginary, as I have found within my clinic, and which reveals itself often as a request for telephone analysis.

Colette Soler has claimed the Freudian concept of libido was invented to describe that movement “which pushes the human being towards […] the object […] [by] looking for a part of itself outside itself in some fashion, which assures you of an extension of yourself outside yourself.” Perhaps McLuhan’s thesis was perfectly aligned with today’s post-continental world of “category theory” and “extensionality;” a world where an object exists only because of its relationship to some other object. But Soler cautioned that this extension is always ‘only possible on the basis of a prior subtraction […] castration.’ Lacan’s early critique of “object relations” demonstrated that this understanding simply doesn’t ‘fit’ the Freudian doctrine of the unconscious. Freud’s discovery avoids the ossification of the object, it avoids, for example, the ‘identity morphism’ of category theory.

It was written in a holy book that “Adam and Eve were both naked and were not ashamed.” My first mistake was to presume that the Hebrew word “ashamed” necessarily carries the sense of being embarrassed over the exposition of the body or its genitals. I learned that the Hebrew word “ashamed” is actually closer to “not being covered,” which implies that the two were not being not covered.[2] To my pleasant surprise, my discovery was confirmed already by Pope John Paul II, who said that “‘they were not ashamed’ [does] not express a lack, but, on the contrary, [it] serves to indicate a particular fullness of consciousness and experience.”[3]

It was after the digestion of a crucial signifier that they made clothing for themselves and they became “ashamed” only in the sense of being “not covered.” It is because of the relative ease of imagining not being covered (as opposed to not being not covered) that Lacan introduced anxiety as a moment of not being without an object. Not being not covered, or, put another way, not being ashamed, indicates not a return to a positive proposition but rather that the object relation was much more obscure. I invite you all to read the Catechism on the meaning of original human experiences by Pope John Paul II as a confirmation of this view.[4]

This may all seem as if it were debauchery, and Lacan claimed as much when he stated that “clothes promise debauchery when one takes them off.”[5] After all, before the loincloths, Adam and Eve had a perfect sexual relationship. Debauchery, by the way, is a type of excessive enjoyment; excessive in the sense of destruction. Bakunin, in one of his political letters, claimed that destruction is a creative passion, and, I find this confirmed by the clinical evidence which suggests that the suffering body creates. Adam and Eve fashioned for themselves clothes out of fig leaves – a truly creative act! The imaginary body is not the only body, there is also the real body of the objet petit a, the body which one is not without: the real body is what remains. Lacan once said that “what lies under the habit, what we call the body, is perhaps but the remainder.”[6] This shines some light on the insistence by some theologians that the Hebrew word for “ashamed” must be translated as “remainder.”

Lacan, in his fourth seminar, said: “[c]lothing is not only made to hide what one has […] but also precisely what one does not have. […] It is not a matter, essentially and always, of hiding the object, but also of hiding the lack of the object.” Note, then, that the holy text has highlighted very nicely that clothing was to hide “nakedness” and not, as it were, to hide the substantial genital organs. The Hebrew word used in the book עֲרוּמִּים (`arummim) expresses a lack of something, as in, for example, the book of Job when the word was used to express that “destruction hath no covering.” We could claim that clothing, as a type of “Urverdrangung” or “primal repression”)[7] hides the fact of lack, but we could also claim, since destruction hath no covering, that clothing is the result of a self-fashioned body from the excessive ‘real.’[8]

Why shouldn’t we use this as an opportunity to think about the function of the veil for some Muslims?

Muslim women patients frequently explain to me that the burqa or niqab is a way for them to “be” recognized as a proper woman under Islam. I have found in my practice that there is a sort of masquerade here, demonstrated to me often by the reoccurring claim that when they were young their fathers might have wanted them to be a boy. These women discover what many little girls come to discover which is that one possible solution to trauma of the real body is to “dress up like a boy and do boy things.” In other words, clinical evidence suggests that sometimes a woman dresses herself up in the fabric of a proper body, so as to conceal, finally, the dark secret of her real body. However, they do not introduce an imaginary body – the figure is obscured in the clothing – but rather a symbolic body. They build one for themselves out of the raw materials of their clothing.

Many Muslim patients express to me that they find themselves at odds with local men after moving to the American continent. There is even a case of a woman suddenly discovering, after 35 years of wearing her hijab, that she was wearing it improperly. This was a consequence of her new found interest in the subtleties of her religion. I am sharing this only to demonstrate that the way men looked at her was absolutely bound up with her new habits. To some extent, they were the reason for her body. So, her hijab was tightened, and the symbolic body was perfected. The symbolic body of the woman is self-fashioned through an active interrogation of the desire of the Other. Thus, for the woman, the self-fashioning involves, on the one hand, an invention of the desire of the Other so as to secure for herself a consistent habit of the self.

In any case, the skin beneath the hijab is only further clothing, and the muscle beneath the skin is further clothing, and the bone, etc. Until we finally reach the limits of clothing, the inaccessible real body – which is also the limit to understanding. This is why the real body is neither the discernible nude body nor the body in extension; the real body is irreducible, inconsistent, and, for that reason, it has a strange relation to our clothing and to our habits of listening. We therefore come to recognize why, in Ecclesiastes, it was written that scholastic habits are “a weariness of the flesh.” McLuhen’s thesis is here supplemented: clothes are extensions of the skin, but, only insofar as skin is not reducible to the real body.

In any case, there comes a moment in analysis when the analysand discovers that her clothes do not fit as originally thought.

The analyst has been put in the position of making them fit better, in other words, of offering an acceptable interpretation to the analysand.

The psychoanalyst is made an expert in matters of fashion.

I want to turn now to the anarchist black bloc. Those who participate in the black bloc tactic dress in black clothing from head to toe. This offers certain tactic advantages for an individual to rush outside of the group, toss a brick, and return back into the group without being recognized. If a bit of colour is worn then the individual can no longer remain submerged within and thereby protected by the others. What becomes recognized, effectively, during these moments, is the lack within the consistency of the black clothing. The consequent anxiety generates a situation in which members of the bloc rush in to act as a shield for deviating members of the bloc, or so as to administer medical attention to the injured, etc.

The body must remain consistent – this is the rule for the black bloc!

The signifier of “black” masters the debauched real body. If one can be-lack, that is, wear the signifier of lack, then one can have lack. This explains why one anarchist author wrote that the black clothing of anarchists “is simply black fabric with nothing on it […] [it is an] anti-colour swallowing all the others.” This anarchist did not write that black clothing is the absence of clothing but rather that it is the presence of clothes with nothing...

This difference is absolutely crucial.

It is not well known that Lacan added to the list of partial objects, “the nothing.” This changed the clinical understanding of anorexia, the trademark of which was no longer the rejection of food but rather the eating of “the nothing.” To eat the nothing is to digest the desire of the maternal Other. Lacan said that “the gift of love […] is a gift of nothing.” The mother issues the demand to eat, and the anorexic swallows only the remainder, only the love.

“Love,” claimed Lacan, “is what appears in the form of bizarre signs on the body.”

When the bloc speaks, what we end up hearing is that they “demand nothing.” The demand for nothing reveals a desire to be loved for the body which it has, the body which, in a most clever way, it has fashioned for itself as an attempt to master the problem of lack. In one anarchist periodical it was written that “[i]n demanding nothing, [we] can stay continuous throughout the many shifts and transformations within the movement.” In another, Fire to the Prisons, somebody wrote that “[t]he demand is a tool for self-organization. It unifies separated individuals against a common enemy […].”

The body of the bloc marches under a black flag, which is to march with a non-sensical anchoring point – best expressed by the signifier, “nothing.” I see no reason why we can not refer to this as a master signifier: anarchy, after all, is, as Proudhon boldly claimed, order.

This is how a body is formed when there is no authority. When there is no prohibitive symbolic function then this symbolic function must be fashioned on one’s own as a defence against the traumatic encounter with the real body, the real nothingness – a nothingness which is never reducible to the partial object. This consistent and self-fashioned partial object is what Lacanians refer to as a semblant.

The master signifier is the semblant par excellence! The signifier of “black” or “nothing” introduces a much needed body, as well as a boundary between bodies. This explains why Jacques-Alain Miller once claimed that the semblant is a way to “convert nothing into something,” that is, by “phallicizing the body,” or, put another way, of making a traumatic nothingness perfectly consistent.

We know that the black bloc do not present themselves as following the law – often it is quite the opposite. We also know women who wear the black burqa or niqab often believe themselves to be strictly obedient to Islamic law. This difference is extremely important because it demonstrates that the masculine logic of black clothing is to present oneself as having mastery of lack, while the feminine logic of black clothing is to present oneself as being no-body, symbolically.

I want to conclude with these threads – I did not offer you much clothing! – simply to highlight, there within the respective masculine and feminine registers, the logic of having and being with respect to the real body with nothing on it.




[5]Seminar XX. p. 6.

[6]Seminar XX

[7]Freud, 1915 – Repression: “We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression [Urverdrängung], a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it.”

[8]The first position begins with the symbolic and finds there a primary repression of the encounter with the name/no of the father. The second position begins with a first real which, precisely through the introduction of a body, produces a second order real of lack. For example, Paul Verhaeghe wrote that “the idea of primal repression is the most interesting one because we can situate there the drive root of the symptom, the Real. It is only with the after-repression that the Symbolic component comes into being. For Freud, this is always a “faulty connection” (falsche Verknüpfung) between a drive component and a representation.



Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuaaaannnnnnnnneeeeee.... Wade.

Lots of feminists are wearing black now, I think it's an Idpol development!

New developments in feminist discourse: what ARE feminists wearing?!?! With baited breath, we waited ten minutes to find out the symbolic meaning of feminist adornment and what it means for anarchists around the globe. ;)

Presumably this is a reference to #metoo at the Golden Globes. The symbolism here appears to be mourning, though it's interesting that it echoes the use of black as a desexualising colour in Islamic veiling. Clearly the "sea of black" was partly a means to disrupt the symbolism of famous women performing attractiveness through ostentatious dress at these kinds of gala events.

In general there seems to have been a big shift in feminist attitudes to dress over the last 30 years. In the 70s-80s it was common for feminists (especially radical feminists) to oppose makeup, and to oppose forms of dress they felt to be sexualising and/or traditionally feminine. This changed probably starting in the 90s, apparently as an effect of postfeminism and sex worker liberation movements. This has probably been intensified by social media and the growing importance of visual performance. Today it seems to be quite normal for younger feminists to wear makeup and sexualised fashion while protesting the signifiers attached to it (slut-shaming, the idea that sexualised dress justifies sexual assault and so on). In fact we've seen growing use of nakedness and sexualised dress as forms of feminist protest - slutwalk, Femen, etc. There's also a stereotypical "SJW look" which is parodied mercilessly by the right and alt-right - hair dyed unusual colours and sometimes in unusual styles, subcultural (punk, hippy, goth) dress and adornments (such as piercings and tattoos), and sometimes androgynous or genderqueer elements. The post-Gamergate "SJW" stereotype is usually young, conventionally attractive, and poses in social-media-friendly ways, though also sometimes shown with a stern, judgemental expression or as "triggered". This is very different from the anti-feminist stereotype of feminists 20 years back - an older, conventionally unattractive, masculine and desexualised woman, often in masculine dress, and shown as prudish and angry. Strangely, a lot of the visual aspects are those which would have identified punk or anarchic aesthetics 20 years ago. Also, IMO there were hardly any feminists who fit the stereotype 20 years ago, although the ones who did got a lot of media coverage; today there's a lot more who are somewhat like it. This might mean that feminists are proactively imitating the stereotypes made of them, or that the generators of stereotypes now have more actual exposure to their targets.

Nuns dressed in black aren't desexualized for me, in fact, it perks my curiosity, makes me wonder what delights of personality and flesh lay beneath those drab and dreary robes. I'm going to defend myself by blaming it on the testosterone coursing through my young genetic characteristics;)

People wanting to study meanings within anarchism (or Islam, or anything else) should really do the work of ethnographically studying the area they work on – or at least base their work on the existing ethnographic, historical or interpretive literature. This author has done this a little with Muslim women, though I'm surprised he doesn't discuss the use of the niqab to signify Islamic identity, to proudly assert Islamic identity in secular spaces, or as a specific signifier of salafi or other “fundamentalist” currents, as opposed to modernist or traditional Islam (notice how it's popped up in places, like Somalia and Algeria, where it isn't at all traditional). Lacanians are far too prone to spin off their own shadows in superficial analyses of things they've observed only superficially – fitting them into pre-formed boxes where they might or might not belong. If I understand rightly, this would never be permitted in Lacanian clinical psychoanalysis, where interpretation follows from the exact coordinates of the discourse presented by the analysand. However, Lacanian cultural theorists seem to feel entitled to engage in this kind of clumsy analysis without apparent concern. The process is sometimes useful in generating a different point of view. But often, it is reductive and violent, and impedes effective analysis. And so it is here. Typical idpol crap about “masculine” versus “feminine” positions, reductions of anarchism to lack, and so on.

On the whole, anarchists don't adhere to the idea of constitutive lack. One can observe this empirically in anarchist theories through time – everyone from Bakunin, Kropotkin, Stirner and Tolstoy to Hakim Bey, Zerzan, Bonanno, autonomia, Situationism and its aftermath. These are theories which celebrate a disalienated or pre-alienated, abundant state of being which is blocked by authority, hierarchy, or capitalism. Lackist theory is itself the target of vicious critique. “The avant-garde eats shit and loves it” (Bey). “No desire without lack, no factory without a boss” (Guattari). One sees, therefore, a refusal (at least on the surface) of the Oedipal logic at its most basic. In Lacanian terms, most anarchists operate somewhere between “psychosis” and “perversion”. The master-signifier or “name-of-the-father” of the dominant system has no moral validity. As a guarantor of meaning, it is foreclosed, or does not exist. In principle anarchists refuse accountability to this master-signifier and also do not wish to install another master-signifier. On the other hand, subjective values can be generated (depending on the variety of anarchism) through affinity, desire, peak experiences, immersion in collective struggles, ritualised practices, altered consciousness, a relationship to the future. Perspectivism based on autopoietic desire. So for example, in Apoifis's study of Greek anarchism, the relationship to the future, the feeling of empowerment and magical transformation in a moment of riot, and the ritual continuation of traditions of riot and resistance are very important components. In most anarchist approaches, the present socio-symbolic order is evacuated of meaning. Instead, meaning arises through subjective practices at a molecular social level, whether individual, small-group, networked, or positing some kind of “class” autonomy. The correlate of this is something like, “everyone has the phallus”. At a root existential level, all people are is masters-without-servants, all people are generative of value through the formation of desire and affinity, and resultant autonomous action. One we recognise that everyone has the phallus (the ability to generate values and autonomous action), we can form horizontal assemblages, affinity-groups, networks, bolos, of empowered subjects.

The refusal of demand has a related dynamic. One “demands nothing” because one has no demand towards the system as interlocutor, no che vuoi relationship or performance for the system's gaze. Instead, one seeks power against the system, one seeks its total destruction. I believe this is more of an existential stance, a refusal of self-compromise, than a real strategic position. In practice, anarchists often make implied “demands” on the system, but these are negative in nature – to not hold a summit in this city, to stop torturing animals, to stop jailing our comrades, to stop fracking or deforesting a particular area, to not repress our social centre or squat. The “demand” is made in the register of the Real, not through action to prevent the action in question. This is how it escapes the register of demand. The fact that the relation to the system is exercised as diffuse/dispersed power enacted by an autonomous subject who does not recognise the system as master (but only as another subject) is decisive in rendering it compatible with existential secession from the socio-symbolic order.

The use of the colour black in anarchist symbolism (black flag, black rose, black cat, etc) goes back a long way. In European culture at least, black tends to signify “no colour” because of the association with darkness. Hence a black flag signifies no flag, no nation, no national colours. The black flag thus has a long use. Not only by anarchists but also by pirates, bandits and peasant insurgents (the “jolly roger” had a different meaning – take no prisoners). A black flag is also the opposite of the white flag, surrender. Black clothes have other implications derived from their strategic uses. People engaged in secretive operations who don't want to be seen – ninjas, assassins, special operations soldiers, cat burglars, insurgents – tend to dress in all black or dark colours (actually ninjas wore dark blue, but in western pop culture it's black). The black hood or balaclava in particular is also associated with “evil” or sinister intent in popular culture – executioners, secret police, guerrillas, “terrorists”, supervillains, cartoon burglars, Ringwraiths, Darth Vader. Black is the shadow in a Jungian sense. It symbolises danger, attack, the Real from the system's point of view, and also symbolises subterfuge and hidden activity, and a heritage of (urban) guerrilla war, and the negation of national colours and surrender.

The closest I've seen to Duane's reading in anarchistic discourse is the Zapatista status where, by masking, and thus eliding their own identity, they come to symbolise diverse oppressed positionalities: “Through me speaks the will of the Zapatista National Liberation Army … [to anyone fighting injustice], We are you... Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains”. By not having an individual identity, one stands for any possible identity, for whatever-singularity, for resistance as such. And here is Negri from the 70s: “Every time I put on my balaclava, I immediately feel the warmth of the working class and proletarian community around me. This solitude of mine is creative, this separateness of mine is the only real collectivity that I know. Nor does the happiness of the result evade me: every action of destruction and sabotage overflows on to me as a sign of class linkage”. The point of the mask is that it separates one's Real, lived body from the signification it holds in the socio-symbolic order which is quilted by capital or the state, allowing it to reappear as a moment of a transpersonal flow. One becomes the “proletarian”, the Real, rather than the bourgeois, the socially-defined identity.

This symbolism may or may not be specifically European. In the Islamic world I think the code is different as black flags were used by states early in Islamic history. Mohammed reportedly used a black standard made from his wife's veil, and also a white flag (though green flags are also associated with Islam). The Fatimid-Abbasid conflict was symbolised as white-black, and at this point black became standard for Sunni Islam. The meaning is obscure, although there's associations with the moon in Islam (the crescent moon and star is another important Muslim symbol), and a white moon and star on a black background is one of the earliest variants of the Islamic black flag. Does it have anything to do with iconoclasm and symbolic austerity? Hard to say. Why are niqabs and burqas black or dark blue? Because they're meant to avoid attracting sexual attention (that's the traditional purpose of Islamic “modesty” in dress, though veiling is also extremely practical regardless of gender if you live in a desert). Light colours both attract attention and are potentially transparent. In Iran, wearing a coloured (often green) hijab is a symbol of modernism and rebellion. Many protesters in 2009 wore green hijabs with some hair showing.

So yeah... stop putting constitutive lack where it isn't relevant, please.

I don't put lack where it isn't relevant. Daddy does. You must be psychotic to think that the lack is lacking!

There are real problems with research that connects to existing bodies of literature. That type of research aims for consistency rather than innovation. You end up repeating and extending knowledge that you already know.

Ethnography is a social science methodology. its for university types to pretend they are actually in touch with reality.

all kinds of problems with your overly wordy post.

For example: no serious lacanian uses the phrase "constitutive lack." That is a phrase used by one or two academics who critique Lacan -- or else transform lacan into university discourse. And that is what you're all on about. It is obvious that you are writing from within the discourse of the university. Your revolution returns you to the master discourse. There is only one counterpoint to the master discourse: analytic discourse. It is clear that the only Lacan that you know is the one you read in a university textbook. No Serious Lacanian is represented in what you wrote above.

How about you shove your holier-than-thou "I get to diagnose you even though I've never met you" bullshit so far up your ass that it comes out your mouth, thereby satisfying your anal and oral fixations at the same time?

The Lacanian muh lack dogma is just another stupid non-falsifiable religion which gives some people license to claim priestly authority by seeing the "real structure" of other people's discourse. No wonder Lacan and his acolytes were in with the Maoists. Same shit, different anus. Well, you can't read my soul over the Internet, and all your theoretical babble can't conceal your basic inability to engage with someone else's point of view without trying to claim authority in some kind of doctor-patient relationship so as to be able to label the other person and dismiss their objections as symptoms. No gods, no masters and no philosopher-kings thank you very much.

>You must be psychotic to think that the lack is lacking!

Umm, yeah. Psychosis is real, and Lacan can't understand it because he's fixated on lack. So he can only theorise psychosis as what it isn't, as the foreclosure of the master-signifier. So, yeah, anarchism also forecloses (or distributes?) the master-signifier. That makes it a psychotic discourse in Lacanian terms. This is very clear if you read Deleuze and Guattari closely, schizoanalysis is a psychotic buggering Lacan so hard that his head falls off and little bits of bloodied semen fly off everywhere and plant in the ground and grow into rhizomes.

I don't think so. No I'm not D I always post under my usual moniker. I don't usually engage with the content much unless it strikes my fancy but you did mention ninjas so I thought I'd plug this really good book I read long ago called Mind of the Ninja: Exploring the Inner Power. It's a good introduction to Ninjutsu and Hollywood's fascination with ninjas during the fabulous 80s. It's also a good introduction to Jungian psychology and themes like archetypes and the shadow, blackness and the fear thereof. As usual @critic's post is thoughtful, articulate and filled with factoids if even a little flashy for the drive-by forum crowd but I rate them highly.

Well actually we masters of Zen regard it as omnipresent but inaccessible to the inexperienced. The all pervading potentiality of the Now, harnessed most recently by the Japanese in the 19th and 20th Centuries to the present day,.,

Final point: the fact the you admit that the black was used to avoid attracting sexual attention only shows you that it is about avoiding lack. The Nothing is precisely an attempt to avoid the lack of sexuality. Sexuality is nothing but lack, there is no such thing as a sexual relationship.

Speak for yourself, incel.

Yeah, second that. Your post says more about you than it does about anything else.

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