Archive for August, 2010

In the Skin of a Lion

August 9, 2010

Toronto’s vast, unseen network of aqueducts and waterworks was famously documented in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987). The aquatic labyrinths, moving through the city as anonymously as the migrant laborers that built them, stop at sites that become settings for the book: an intake tunnel below Lake Ontario; a water main along the underside of the Bloor Viaduct; the waterworks filtration building, whose atriums would at nights host immigrant workers gathered there illegally to attend theatre performances and plan labour actions and strikes.

By the 1930s, in the midst of militant labour unrest, Government officials would plan for possible threats to the urban infrastructure, including the filtration station. The passage of the Public Works Protection Act in 1939 would invest the government with ‘emergency powers’ in order to guard public buildings from sabotage by the Germans at the opening of the Second War, but more fundamentally in the context of anarchist and communist agitation. It became precisely this 1939 Act that the Toronto Police would use as grounds for martial law and the suspension of the Canadian Charter in downtown Toronto during the G20 meetings in June, 2010.[i] The policed Toronto of 2010 thus opens backwards onto 1938, when “the rich and powerful close[d] ranks. Troops were in evidence everywhere.”[ii]

In the Skin of a Lion tells overlapping personal stories of love, primarily through the young-but-aging figure of Patrick. This montage of personal fragments, however, opens onto a set of radical truths. Ideas are de-personalized and unbound, transmitted to Patrick by his lover, Alice Gull, not as secrets or mementos, but in a way that allows for the emergence of the principle. Alice is the messenger of a universality that becomes, with the novel itself, an ode to the idea.

It is in this sense that the novel becomes a meditation on the “grand cause,” the singular emergence of a shared experience stretched across a “gap of love” (157). Under the banner of a common idea, the grand cause becomes a name for what can occur in moments of emancipation marked by love. For Ondaatje, to love is to be seized by love, in the way that one is seized by the abstraction of an Idea. Love is supported by Alice and Patrick even while it simultaneously seizes hold of them at the point of an irreducible encounter. Depicted poetically, it might read: “From the utmost tip / and limit of your lips / a sliver of justice / kissed us unbeknownst.”[iii]

“Alice had an idea, a cause in her eye about wealth and power” (165). This romantic egalitarianism is stark. It is both sentimental while being intensely profaned. It is rough, so that Patrick must come to know the wealthy “the way a dog before battling with cows rolls in the shit of the enemy” (132). No doubt it is this sympathetic and difficult depiction of axiomatic commitment, pure yet unclean, that excludes the novel from entering into discussions both during and after the recent G8/G20, even while In the Skin of a Lion remains the most famous prose written to date about Toronto and its anarchists.


“I’ll tell you about the rich. They do not toil or spin. Remember that…Understand what they will always refuse to let go of. There are a hundred fences…between the rich and you” (132). Part of the success of In the Skin of a Lion is its attention to architectural, geographical and urban realities. Skin of a Lion is the story not only of the events of a political past, but also the ways in which they come to form the urban landscape itself. Events can possess the built environment, as we are used to imagining in the sense of city as a canvas, backdrop or stage. But they can also be possessed by it, embedded in everyday spaces of segregation, literally built into the city. Here fences become a political touchstone, emerging not only in open moments of authority and urban militarization (i.e. 1938 at the waterworks), but with the internal barriers and uneven spaces of a city on its gridded plan.

In the wake of the Toronto G8/G20 events, an anonymous writer conveyed precisely this aspect of everyday control in the city. “The dismantlement of the fence’s evidently oppressive architecture, provides the convenient illusion that the exclusionary walls of the state apparatus are temporary rather than inherent.”[iv] In reality, there are visible and invisible fences that structure our cities and their architectures on a daily basis. In fact, writing in the wake of the 2001 G8 summit, Giorgio Agamben captured precisely this aspect of the city: “I remember Genoa 2001. I thought it was an experiment to treat the historical centre of an old city, still characterised by an ancient architectural structure, to see how in this centre one could suddenly create walls, gates that not only had the function of excluding and separating but were also there to articulate different spaces and individualise spaces and subjects.”[v] We can begin to identify a difference between a kind of ‘disposable’ state of exception, on the one hand, and something like an everyday ‘architectural’ state of exception, on the other – both are present during a spectacle or a super-emergency, yet one outlasts it’s supposedly exceptional purpose. “This fence does not only represent the militarization of Toronto,” said Harsha Walia, “but also the ways in which people are divided  on a daily basis.”[vi]

Harsha’s statement was made at a time when 1,000 people were being arrested in a $1 billion dollar operation to enforce a heightened ‘state of exception’ backed by the pure violence of the Toronto Police.[vii] Harsha’s statement is not an appeal to abstract humanity, in which divisions are dissolved into an overall harmony, imaginary or real. And here the final confrontation in Skin of a Lion is crucial, where Harris the city’s planner baron attempts to reason with Patrick by stressing their equal share in the imagined urban whole. “Think about it, Patrick,” says the master planner in the novel, “You’re as much of the fabric as the alderman and the millionaires” (238). Harris’ organic vision assigns human activity to a single plane of fate. We might, for a moment, try to imagine this in the concept of what philosopher Alain Badiou calls Oneness. The One is, for Badiou, the force that reduces human activity to repetition within a unified “clamour of being.” It is the force that produces order, hierarchy, and nature. Oneness derives from a diminished concept of love, preventing love from ever being true by constantly guiding it back into repeated clichés and conservative tropes.[viii] We should consider Patrick’s counter-response to Harris. In the memory of Alice and against Harris’ paternal hierarchy, Patrick enjoins love. He becomes filled with a desire to throw light on the world and prescribe the situation, to invent a politics of confrontation with authority. The words of Alice, transmitted through Patrick, are uncompromising: “She [Alice] had…an old saying: In a rich man’s house there is nowhere to spit except in his face” (239). This is the name of love? Yes, if we have to courage to give life to the romantic and profaned clarity of the irreducible limit that moves us in struggle, this difficult “gap of love.”


“The bourgeois finds himself in contradiction with the citoyen, like the contradiction between the member of civil society and his political lion’s skin.”

–Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1844)

In the wake of the mass arrests and the attack on even the most basic civil liberties in Toronto, it is now more than ever that we should pay attention to a distinction made by Marx early on between two forms of political emancipation: ‘civic’ emancipation and ‘human’ emancipation. The distinction is today reproducible in the difference between a defense of civil liberties, on the one hand, and a political confrontation with capitalist inequality, on the other. The two must be thought in tandem. To follow only the former, Marx said, is to wear only a shell of politics – a political lion’s skin.

Frederic Jameson, writing in 1977, made a useful insight in this direction: “it is precisely the distinction between anti-fascist and anti-capitalist strategy that seems less easy to maintain today and less immediately attractive a political programme over wide areas of a ‘free word’ in which military dictatorships and ‘emergency regimes’ are the order of the day.”[ix] What Jameson added is that our militarized ‘emergency regimes’ are today “multiplying precisely to the degree that genuine social revolution becomes a real possibility.” Is it not true that today the state is beginning to accumulate weapons and militarize our cities precisely in anticipation of potential disorder, a possible response in the streets to their economic policies (policies like the G8’s agreement to brutally halve national deficits by 2013 in the wake of the financial crisis)? If so, new forms of state repression should not be seen as separate from the current course of proliferating privileges, in which the latter would in some way become an enlightened liberal basis for a defense against barbaric militarism. Rather, militarization and the suspension of civil rights is becoming an internal condition of capitalism at this historical moment of crisis, replicating in its own way what Agamben identified in the “parallelism between military and economic emergencies that characterize[d] the politics of the twentieth century.”[x]

There is both a question of historical origins and a question of historical redemption. Origins convey the innumerable inequalities that shape our past, while redemption presents the emancipatory potential embedded in the very same history. The answer to how these two are conjoined lies, if anywhere, in In the Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje once called the film viewer a “reader.”[xi] If the viewer is a reader, what is the actual reader? The reader, in fact, engages as a historian.[xii] In the coming year, most of us will experience what happened in Toronto during the G8/G20 summit through film and image media, through the posted fragments and visual condensations of a city’s experience with a security state. Rather than consuming innumerable visual images, increasingly overdetermined in their immediacy, we should engage with literary depictions of Toronto as a city in history. Acts of fiction can provide the submerged tales of a living, subaltern past that becomes suddenly redeemable through poetic representations that are neither nostalgic nor properly historical, but that act as a means of foreseeing the present.

[i] “Media Alert – Public Works Protection Act invoked at G20”, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, June 24, 2010; see also, “Police used little-known law to harrass protesters,” Vancouver Co-operative Radio, August 11, 2010,


[ii] Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (Vintage Canada, 1996) p. 220. All future quotes in brackets in text.

[iii] Unpublished poem by Andrew C. Witt

[iv] “G20 Toronto: An Exception that Confirmed the Rule”, Anonymous author, Toronto Media Co-op, July 6, 2010

[v] Giorgio Agamben, “Metropolis” transl. Arianna Bove (2006)

[vi] “At the G20 Fence: Harsha Walia, No One is Illegal Vancouver” BChannel News, June 25, 2010

[vii] ‘Pure’ in Walter Benjamin’s sense as a form of suspended practice without law as its immediate end. See his Critique of Violence.

[viii] For a case study in cliches, the short film ‘Love versus the G20’, where we find such statements of “love”: “…this is a message to the police, we are not against you, you are human beings just like we are, we are all One.” Fierce Light Films posted July 8, 2010

[ix] Fredric Jameson, “Reflections in Conclusion” (1977) in Aesthetics and Politics (London; New York: Verso, 2007) p. 203

[x] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, transl. Kevin Attell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005) p. 22

[xi] Gary Kamiya, “Delirious in a different kind of way: An interview with Michael Ondaatje” Salon, November 1996

[xii] In the same conversation, Ondaatje suggests, “there’s a sense of history which a book can catch, but…film almost can’t.”