Despite its almost two and a half hours running time, Béla Tarr’s 2011 film, The Turin Horse, is composed of only 30, extremely lengthy, shots. It details the extremely mundane and repetitive life of a peasant farmer and his adult daughter at the end of the 19th century. Underlining just how repetitive and empty this life is, the film forces us to sit through the same daily, time-consuming events more than once. The concept of novelty or change in this world not only feels impossible, it appears that it may not even exist as a concept at all. Tarr has said of his film: “We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter… All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.”
The horse of the film’s title is the horse around which Nietzsche famously threw his arms and sobbed, before lapsing into a ten year silence. We never see this scene and because the film’s action starts immediately after this event (with the farmer taking the horse back to his home), we never see Nietzsche either. He remains present through his absence. Perhaps the repetition of daily routine which weighs so heavily on ourselves as viewers of the film is a bringing to life of the problems which motivated Nietzsche’s work. As Tarr says, the repetitive nature of the farmer and his daughter’s existence shows us that something is wrong with their world, but the more interesting question is: isn’t the poverty of this grinding repetition, its austere emptiness, ultimately responsible for preventing the farmer and his daughter from articulating what is wrong with their world? Nietzsche’s breakthrough, then, could be seen as the act of having produced a powerful and potent discourse with which to start diagnosing the problems of that world.
If the farmer and his daughter lack the tools required to articulate what is wrong with their world, then today we have the opposite problem: we have no shortage of such tools and we can easily articulate what is wrong with our contemporary world. Our current problem is that it is much more difficult to change our world or initiate an intervention into it such that we would have a greater say over the terms of our existence. Whereas the characters in Tarr’s film are burdened by the heaviness of a spirit-crushing repetition, today we are subject to the idea that things never stay the same. With globalisation, instead of going to sleep knowing that tomorrow will be exactly the same as today, we go to sleep knowing that events taking place overnight on the other side of the globe can have drastic implications for our own lives. Whereas the farmer and his daughter are tied to the dreadful monotony of their farmstead, we are the insecure precariat, whose job security is more often than not tied to the state of the globalised economy.
Of course, insecurity brought about by incessant change is not distributed equally. Since the referendum, we have been bombarded by a unionist message which says: ‘independence must be put to bed for a generation, lest the insecurity caused by the constant threat of independence causes damage to the economy.’ If parliamentary democracy is about mandate-seeking, then the suggestion here is that there should be no pure repetition of past mandates sought by political parties. To offer the exact same thing to the electorate again is simply not playing by the informal rules of the game. Of course, the notorious exception to this is the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty held in Ireland, after the Irish electorate voted ‘the wrong way’ i.e. against the interests of capital – which makes precisely the obvious point that these informal rules of the game exist in order for capital to contain the threats posed to it by democracy.
Perhaps, then, the best way to resist a world in which we are subjected to a regime of constant insecurity and incessant change is to find some way of introducing repetition into the system on our own terms. Within the radical left, there is a tradition of deliberately repeating past events. Slavoj Žižek refers to this tradition when he notes the performative impact of a recreation of the storming of the Winter Palace on the third anniversary of the October Revolution: “Tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, students, and artists worked round the clock, living on kasha (tasteless wheat porridge), tea, and frozen apples, and preparing the performance at the very place where the event really took place three years earlier; their work was coordinated by the Army officers, as well as by avant-garde artists, musicians, and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold. Although this was acting and not reality, the soldiers and sailors were playing themselves… [T]he formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovsky noted that “some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical.”
Nostalgia, in Žižek’s view, is always nostalgia for opportunity lost, so to deliberately repeat a historical episode is one way of trying to reopen the opportunities lost or obscured. I am certain that after the election in May this year, I will experience a feeling of loss, as the turning of spring into summer forces me to nostalgically recall what we achieved – as well as what we failed to achieve – last summer. I am certain many thousands of others will feel the same. The prospect of such a predicament forces me to ask: dare we try to recreate, to re-enact the spirit of the referendum? Of course, I am not suggesting that we literally try to hold another ballot. But what if we were to consider the potential for multiple political liberations opened up by temporarily readjusting the horizon of our concept of independence? What if we make of this coming summer a collective drive, not for the singular declaration of independence by a new state, but for thousands of molecular declarations of independence?
What forms would these ‘molecular declarations of independence’ take? I imagine a sweeping range, from the very smallest scale upwards: individuals inspired and empowered to declare their independence from abusive partners, workers deciding collectively to leave a useless union (like USDAW, for instance, which registered for the No side during the referendum without consulting its members on the issue) to join a radical union like the IWW, all the way up to the fight for a functioning, independent media free of corporate interests. Crowd psychology dictates that we often feel liberated, less inhibited, when we are swept up in a collective process of action. As part of a crowd, we dare to live. In the scenario I am imagining, whilst individuals and communities set about taking action to gain greater independence for themselves, they should simultaneously gain courage and inspiration from the examples set, and the direct support given, of other individuals and other communities.
A surge of activity organised around the concept of molecular independence, then, could take on an ever more radicalising feedback cycle; but to get started, it would have to be driven by a nostalgic desire to return to the shared experience of collective political action last year. Thus, to begin with, this ‘second summer of independence’ may be energised by drawing its inspiration from the past. However, it will have to face the future also. The 2016 Scottish Parliament elections will be one year away. Many of the liberations gained during such a festival will feel temporary and ultimately vulnerable to the return of oppressive regularities. Thus, if all this were to become a reality, it would be important to focus on the sorts of policies needed to consolidate the gains (as Jonathon Shafi has been saying recently, the radical left in Scotland needs to be aiming, at the very least, to become the official opposition to the SNP in Holyrood). This would give the whole enterprise a practical edge, to counter accusations of pure utopia.
Žižek is fond of asserting that radical new political truths require a name in order to gain traction: names like Lenin, Mao or Chavez. The danger of promoting a radical politics organised around the names of individual leaders is obvious enough. However, if the name is an impersonal word such as ‘independence’, then rallying around a broad interpretation of this word would encourage a constant process of liberation and a drive for ever-greater political autonomy. I don’t want people to see the work of Independence Live as belonging to a narrow period in Scotland’s political history. We need independence for Scotland, of course. But we need independence and self-determination for everyone. Independence forever!