Take this Overdetermination and Shove it!

While struggling through Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overderemination”, I was trying to come up with an actual example the illustrate the idea that a single event can focus and filter the energy of a host of complex “secondary contradictions” inherent, but not immediately visible in the larger cultural and economic structure. Then former flight attendant Steven Slater got hit in the head by one too many pieces of overhead luggage, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley fridge, deployed the inflatable emergency chute, and slid his way to freedom and unemployment. Heralded almost immediately as a folk hero whose spontaneous act of resistance spoke to the secret pain of service industry employees everywhere, Slater became a minor celebrity, and was even given the VIP treatment at a Barry Manilow concert he attended the next weekend. CBC called the episode “one of the most awe-inspiring and cathartic resignations in labour history“, while the National Post pointed out that his reckless deploying of the chute could have injured workers on the ground.

What gets left out of most of the available media coverage is that, according to Mr. Slater, the woman who had attempted to retrieve her overhead luggage before the plane landed had fought with another passenger over use of the space at the beginning of the flight. On the other side, there are accounts from passengers claiming that Slater had been short with them over trivial matters, as well as insinuations that he may have been drinking before the flight. For the most part thought, Slater’s exchange with the irate passenger is presented as the “final straw”, the factor that tipped a background sense of alienation, exploitation and abuse over into the realm of demonstrative action. His protest was rendered all the more effective by the smooth, cavalier manner in which he pulled it off, skipping past airport security to his car which got him home before the police had even been notified. He even had enough presence of mind to collect his own carry on baggage.

The media response to this event is instructive in itself, producing a blogosphere debate over whether Slater should be considered a hero or felon. But the either/or construction of this discourse acts as a mythologizing screen for the complexities of actual social contradictions and relations which can be seen as overdeterming this event. For instance, the focus on the potentially harmful or emancipatory effects of Slater’s actions, the debate on whether Slater or the passenger was ultimately at fault, distracts from the fact that both the passengers and employees on airlines are placed in a position of discomfort and possible peril by an industry that packages the need for dangerously overcrowded flights as a response to consumer market demand.

As one might expect, an ad hominem attack has been launched by the press against Slater, but his request to have his job back is the appropriately political response to his action. By registering what was the hidden reality of his actual employment situation and making it visible in an immediately understandable way, Slater entered into what Ranciere calls the realm of properly political thought and action. Due to structural but largely invisible factors, Slater the airline employee was already excluded (along with the passengers themselves, and the pilots and ground staff) from the systems that would secure and maintain his well being (a properly historical understanding of this state of affairs would have to look at the massive deregulation that restructured the aviation industry in the late seventies and early eighties, with this development itself being placed in context of the state-corporate-union perpetuated monopoly that developed prior to this). His flamboyant gesture simply made this concealed estrangement a reality with mass-media visibility. His request to be reinstated in the airline industry is not a concession, but the proper culmination of this political act: by seeking to be included within the given social field as a radically excluded individual, Slater becomes a concrete figure for a universal situation of disenfranchisement produced by modern service industry (for both its employees and consumers in this case).

The wrong thing to do would be accept the offer to host a reality TV show based on the whole experience.

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