attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: anarchism

A comment on urban struggle and recomposition

‘The first mass influx will begin over the next few months as an estimated 40,000 families affected by the Benefit Cap will be forced to seek housing outside the capital. This is only likely to be the beginning however as soaring rents and shrinking benefits could mean soon almost all private sector tenants on benefits will be priced out of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of claimants could soon be making a move to Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Kent over the next few years’. (Jonny Void. Here.

Not only does this exo-urban migratory flow seem to be entirely in keeping with the inner city’s gentrification, although these two operations are probably not coupled by intentional design, a strategic operation emerges on the part of capital and the neoliberal state that seeks to recompose it. This neoliberal recomposition of capital is being met with a recomposition of urban space by an attack on the working class. This is to say, echoing Murray Bookchinm, David Harvey and Paul Virilio, that the city is a sight of class struggle (whether that struggle articulates itself in those terms or not). The ‘right to the city’ is the right to space, to this space, and it is a demand that provides a kind of linking-up (I’m thinking about workers, unemployed, disabled claimants, but also about the homeless who, in cities like Edinburgh, are under attack simply of existing in the wrong space). On the issue of homelessness, is there any kind of homeless union? At the same time, again in agreement with David Harvey, this shows a poverty of thought in relation to those strands of anticapitalism that make calls for dropping out of the city (cf. Tiqqun, in a certain sense Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi as well- the city doesn’t ‘slow down’, although it might have “decelerative zones”) play directly into the hands of the plutocratic-oligarchic class. The material contestation of space might involve an intensification of the Occupy movement’s strategy. If you are threatened with eviction, that is if your spatial vulnerability is exposed and attacked, then what do you have to lose exactly? The Occupy movement might become another form of squat movement:

What squatters seek, and have always sought, is security of tenure, and indeed personal security. However, there has been a marked deterioration in the public mood which enabled local authorities in the 1940s and again in the 1960s and 1970s to make creative deals with squatters, but in the 1990s led central government, relying for support on what it saw as the self-protective instincts of a property-owning democracy, to adopt policies which have had the effect of criminalising them’.

(Colin Ward, 2004. The hidden history of housing. Here.).

Ward says that squatting can be ideological and/or pragmatic. Clearly in the Occupy movement as a Squatting movement is would be both simultaneously, and it would exceed the demand for security of tenancy but would also call for the security of the ability to occupy certain spaces as such. A city like London is built on the historical labour of workers, in terms of wealth and in the sense that so much of it’s materiality is the dead labour of workers, and (“the city is not itself”- Virilio) continues to be exist in a phase space produced by the ongoing labour of construction workers and cognitive workers (architects and so on). A city like London, my home city, a city that I hate and miss in often equal measure, could be the perfect place for a wave of squat actions. Now that we are revealed as the precarious class (“the 99%”) I would think that the public would be less inclined to see squatters as parasites and crusties.

A step too far to consider at the moment, but why not: the exodus of claimants and the homeless (who are really one figure, right? one is just latent while the other is manifest), have another member of their chain that naturally calls out to them. I am writing about the travelers who are still, even in the current episode of the crisis, scapegoated and seen as a illegitimate, a menace, an mobile ecological disaster (and yet urban planning has produced the primary agent of mobility not as bodies, not public transportation networks, but the car; indeed, cities still thrive on the road networks that connect them together as material-logistical veins of the flow of material goods, so perhaps even more than the car or the 4×4 it is the articulated lorry that is the principle object of the inter-urban infrastructure).

In pointing to the traveler community I am not pointing to an ally, and ally who at the moment still appears as an enemy to the sedentary populace. To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest a tactic of urban nomadism, which would only be a way of living open to a small number of people without jobs or dependents and thus might amount to little more than adventurism. In the end, the tactic of urban nomadism is atactical because it all too often appears as a lifestyle choice or out of necessity; it is either an experiment in living that is not open to all latent homeless people or it is a reactive coping mechanism that capital impels people to take up. We can list the modalities that urban nomadism takes: car living, couch surfing, temporary homes, sleeping rough, and, in a city like London, the kind of accomodation supplied by the towering Center Point. Couch surfing is an intriguing phenomena because it is a sort of dual-urbanism of the megapolis, the urbanism of the multi-nodal network of cities connected by road, flight paths and airports, sealines, ferries, tankers, and ports: a whole material-logistical ontocartography of a city beyond any particular territorialisation (a city more of movement and speed than stasis and sedation). Of course, the accusation of adventurism shouldn’t be extended to travelers.

Indeed, this points even further to those who are involved in the urban regime of spatiality, those cognitive workers who are active in the production of urban space. Take for example the Spatial Agency project that speak in:

Bruno Latour’s terms, critical attention is shifted from architecture as a matter of fact to architecture as a matter of concern. As matters of fact, buildings can be subjected to rules and methods, and they can be treated as objects on their own terms. As matters of concern, they enter into socially embedded networks, in which the consequences of architecture are of much more significance than the objects of architecture.

and which wants to move

away from the figure of the architect as individual hero, and replaces it with a much more collaborative approach in which agents act with, and on behalf of, others.

So here there is another potential ally. The Spatial Agency project is a fantastic resource, one that more people should know about and which we could benefit from some time reading.

Perhaps this sounds like a call for an insurrectional movement in the sense that Saul Newman, taking the word from Max Stirner, gives it:

What was striking in Occupy was the absence of the usual modes of communication and representation. There were no demands, no programs, and no revolutionary blueprints, just the coming together of singularities without anything in common apart from a desire to create new relations and subjectivities. The mode of communication, on the contrary, was completely innovative, decentralized, and gestural. Lastly, there was no party, no centralized leadership, no form of representatives, no Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power. Those times are over. The vanguard has fallen from its privileged place in revolutionary politics. It’s completely defunct. This is the time not of revolution, but of insurrection, the creation of autonomous spaces and relations and new collective intensities. Occupy gives a glimpse of the possibilities of the insurrection today. Here.

Yet this is collection of singularities is precisely a liberal formation of pre-existent individuals that have come together as a in Stirner’s union of egoists. It is a collectivity rather than a community. This is to say that it is the mirror of the capitalism that it seeks to resist (did it dare think it could overcome it?). Regardless of this philosophical point, there is the practical one that- and against Newman’s later comment from the same text about the lack of a ‘Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power’, there was reportedly no real organisation either. The self-organised form of the Occupy movement would have proved inadequate to the task of building anything out of the wreckage of the crisis of capitalism. Let’s be clear on this if on nothing else: the focus on urbanism implies that we do require some kind of Lenin, if not Leninism, because this is a huge undertaking. We can’t think about organising in the style of bolo’bolo, the totally impractical idea of radical localism. It isn’t enough that singularities ‘with nothing in common’, which is itself a piece of neoliberal propaganda (indeed, it is how the logic of scapegoating travelers works), is the kind of thinking we need to do away with. Newman calls Occupy a “post-identity politics” and then seeks to lump class warfare into “identity politics”, when the point of the proletariat is precisely its radical dissolution of identitarian and substantialist models of political thinking. Why is he making this argument now, as class division begins to emerge once again as the all too obvious structural partition of the distribution of the sensible? In part because his career as a postanarchist means that he is committed to an abandonment of the desire for (rather than tabooing of the term) of revolution and to the kind of radical individualism that Max Stirner inaugurates as an idealist form of freedom. Actual freedom is defined by Stirner in precisely liberal terms, and he is looks upon it with indifference and even disdain. Not even the Stoics, with their emphasis on equanimity, jettisoned the political in the same way that Stirner did. It is this thought that there is nothing in common- and why not, following Lingis, ask if this isn’t exactly what we have in common- that has prevented us from developing beyond spectacular protest. This is precisely what is shifting. There are calls for the inaugeration of a new party of socialism, a reinvigorated anarcho-syndicalist movement, and the return to openly talking in terms of communism and anarchism. The prefix of “post-” is precisely what needs to be abandoned. As Chris Cutrone puts it in his Platypus article, ‘The relevance of Lenin today’

the people—the demos—seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism—a “Jacobin” party—would itself be a revolutionary act.

Saul Newman represents what has variously been post-anarchism, neoanarchism, ‘the new anarchists’, and the anarchist ethics of infinite responsibility. Slavoj Zizek has called it hypertical protest, and others (more and more myself included) are coming to see it as a form of liberalism that has to be exceeded within the problematic of communist organisation. The idea that insurrection is opposed to revolution, or that we are living in an age beyond revolution is already to buy into a very specific discourse on what revolution means, and who carries it out. In fact, it is to speak in the language of what would once have been called counter-revolutionary terms. Similarly, Simon Critchley has stated that

Politics is perhaps no longer, as it was in the so-called anti-globalization movement, a struggle for and with visibility. Resistance is about the cultivation of invisibility, opacity, anonymity, and resonance.

The struggle for visibility remains vitally important to the homeless of cities like Edinburgh, as it does for a great many people. Occupy itself is about cultivating a form of urban visibility and about the visibility of the nature of space and the identification of real live people and institutions in space-time-matter. That much is obvious from the fact that Occupy is not simply the occupation of anywhere but of named places; Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Sussex, and so on. In the conditions today we are forced to accept a tactical openness, I believe the conditions we find ourselves in demand such a stance, but it does demand a stance nonetheless. Pure mobility and absolute withdrawal are, in actuality, the image of recession to the private sphere that liberalism has long been held to; we will gather publicly, but we are isolated and private individuals. Against this, Occupy involved the production of publics that, could they cohere and become ‘a city within the city’ (in Richard Seymour’s formula), would have also formed municipalities:

There is every reason to believe that the word anarchism, with its historic commitment to the confederation of municipalities — the famous “Commune of communes” — is in [the hyterical liberals] eyes completely “utopian” and that she merely hijacks the word to add color and pedigree to her simplistic [protest movement] — a world that, by her own admission to me, she personally knows little about. (Murray Bookchin, A meditation on the ethics of anarchism. Here.

What was Occupy and what are the continued occupations (Sussex University) if they aren’t a conflict of regimes of time-space-matter? Bodies organised in space, tied to it, holding it, producing it as a public and political space, and thereby returning an embodied gaze on the disembodied gaze of the financial infosphere. The demand of the international citizenry is that those responsible take responsibility. This means locating them in space and thereby contesting spatiality. To use the internet, the mobile phone, the screen in order to do so is merely to weaponise the technologies of the illuminationism attempts to abolish publicity and politics. The tactic of occupation remains open and might well be accelerated. Could there even be cross-occupations? Mass occupations? This is crucial, it is the crucial move, but it is also the beginning that be radicalised. To risk dialectical language, it must be sublated in a movement of aufheben. The urban struggle, the struggle in, with, and for the city is an ancient one. It is what was at stake in the demos of Greece, and it is what is at stake again in a renewal of class struggle and communism. Quite against a certain thought, a thought that the militarisation of urban space is anything new, we should recall that the city has its history in military thought. That is to say, we have always been, in a shifting manner and under different contexts and for different reasons, been sunk in a military space. Class war is not simply rhetoric. Today it is more visible than it has been for a long time. It demands that we stop singing hymns to the power of powerlessness, to parody, to irony, to hysteria, that we rediscover the potency of the organisation of bodies and the articulation of demands.


Attention Bombardment: Is there a Lenin for the anxious age?

Terence Blake is currently translating the latest seminar with Bernard Stiegler. In scanning through it I am reminded of the reasons I became a psychiatric nurse (proletarianisation of the mentally ill; pathologisation of the proletariat) and of why I left London (living in a city of panic that was a bunker city was doing my panic disorder no good). Here is a series of quotes on attention and what Berardi calls the possibility of the psychobomb that explodes the (bio)psychosphere of subjectivation:

Do not forget that your brain functions in time, and needs time in order to give attention and understanding. But attention cannot be infinitely accelerated. Marx described a crisis of overproduction in industrial capitalism—when production surpasses demand, an excess workforce is fired, who in turn have less money to buy products, resulting in an overall effect of economic decline. In the sphere of semiocapital, however, overproduction is linked to the relation between the amount of semiotic goods being produced in relation to the amount of attentive time being disposed of. You can accelerate attention by taking amphetamines, for instance, or using other techniques or drugs that give you the possibility of being more attentive, more productive in the field of attention. But you know how it ends.- Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence. Here.

These infinite demands for the finite neurocognitive resource of attention- which is a form of bodily comportment to the world- provide a ceaseless stream of attentional-demand on the brain that it can’t meet. Navigating the contemporary urban environment, and not necessarily even that of the megapolis, and even sitting in a cafe today presents one with hundred of flashing signs, adverts, audio-transmissions, moving images, and so on and so on, a cacophony of signs and a chaos of noise, accelerating, multiplying, a plethora upon a plethora overlaid and overlapping that are superimposed on the physical environment with its own denizens such that the nervous system had evolved to cope with. The pathogenetic potential of this rests on these moving images, bodies and roaring sounds that activate our hominid survival networks, drawn as they are to sudden movement, to rushes of sound and in full autonomic efficiency our bodies- which are ourselves- carry out how many assessments of threat a day, a week, a month, a lifetime? And the genius of pharmaco-capitalist production is that it produces its own consumers through the techniques of marketing.

The rise of neuromarketing is the latest modality of this particular version of techne and mobilises other features of the medical technologies typically put to work for neurological and psychiatric conditions. The Pepsi Challenge has been undertaken with test participants undergoing fMRI scans. Before continuing, we should remember that there are a number of problems with the neuroimaging processes and the fact that they say nothing outside of the hermeneutics humans perform on them (cf. Richard Bental. 2011. Why psychiatric treatments fail; neuroskeptic. Nonetheless, they provide valuable data; the point is more to recall that the neuroimage is not a the revalation of truth, but is itself a tool in an ever expanding arsenal of neurotechniques. The findings reported in the journal Neuron showed that the semiological relationship to the brand was the main indicator of verbally expressed preference and that knowledge of which drink was being drunk by altered the state of the participants brains. In particular, there were changes to hippocampal regions associated with affectivity and memory. In this study it appears to be the semiological relation to brand that determines preference of drink and therefore the activation of certain consumer behaviours (ie: buying Coke instead of Pepsi) because their is a semio-affectivity that implies an emotional relationship with a set of affective signifiers and images surrounding “Coke”. The authors of the study state that

Coke and Pepsi are special in that, while they have (Figure 3A) similar chemical composition, people maintain strong behavioral preferences for one over the other.

Recently, Levi Bryant has attempted to construct a model of criticism called Borromean Critical Theory that corresponds roughly with psychiatric theory’s repeated calls for a biopsychosocial model of psychpathology. In this Borromean Critial Theory there are three implicated and interoperative layers of reality to be targeted for any problem, with each being according its own unique weighting and expression in a map of a given situation. These layers are the phenomenal, the material, and the semiotic. This tripartite can also be expressed in terms of the epistemic and the corporeal. What is important to note is that in this study we find all three levels in operation: the activation of the gustatory system by the introduction of the cola drink to the mouth (material) and the simultaneous sensory experience- the qualia- of taste (phenomenal), and the relationship to those particular cognitive schematic associations with the consumer brands “Coke” and “Pepsi”. Despite the near total chemical symmetry of the two drinks and the continuousness of all human gustatory systems with one another- although continuity does imply variation, so we must be careful- the overdetermining factor in the relationship to the drink, and therefore to the subjectivations responsible for producing the consumer subject, activating the repertoire of semio-sensorimotor comportment that organises consumer behaviour, and finally couples the consumer to the economy in this particular way, through this particular commodity mediation. To put this otherwise, here is a situation in which the material and phenomenological are trumped by the semiotic; the epistemic obliterates the corporeal. This is why Franco Berardi is able to call contemporary capitalism semiocapitalism. Critics of neuromarketing express concerns over the destruction of informed consent that the abandonment of rational content to advertising and a focus on stimulating affective brain states implies; yet this is already to miss the point that capital always functions on and through the recomposition and reinvestment of attention and desire. This again is summarised by Franco Berardi when he states that ‘the attention economy has become an important subject during the first years of the new century’ [Precarious Rhapsody, p.82]. This reference to an attention economy is at one and the same time a reference to the way that advertising has always attempted to marshal finite organic hominid attentional resources for economic purposes, and to the economy of that finite resource.

Indeed, marketing operates/operated on a model called AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action [Here]. This was supposed to explain the design for advertising, what it was supposed to target and activate, and in what order, in order to stimulate the consumer to buy this particular product rather than any competitor product. Commodification always begins with the commodification of the nervous system: harnessing the attention activation networks of perception that were evolved as coping mechanisms that aided survival in a threatening world. Without attention there can be no perception; without the pivot of the waist, the turn of the head, the fixing of the gaze there could never be that particular organism-environment coupling that produces the perceptual experience of a world. The marketing industry is thus not simply the manipulator of desires, the educator of how one ought to desire as a subject of capital, it is also itself a particular version of the coupling relation; it is a semiotic coupling with the body mediated through material media (the poster, the billboard, the TV screen, the high street, the shopping mall, the radio, the various internet enabled screens, the ambient advertising of professionals and even those others we find ourselves sharing a space with- through their conversation or the branding on their clothes, phones, whatever). The advertising industry is primarily involved in physiological interventions .

The kind of physiological intervention that is carried out through the activation of attention primarily involves the production of a heightened physiological state; a state of arousal. The eye, the reptilian brain, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine response produce all those bodily experiences we are all familiar with: the increased heart-rate, blood pressure, light headedness, and a general increase in sensory responsiveness to any and all stimuli- especially motion- and a readiness for action. Arousal of this kind of obviously important for a full range of creaturely behaviours such as seeking food, hunting for that food, and the obvious sense of “arousal” as sexual arousal. Arousal is the condition of metabolic self-differing, the movement of the organism from one state to another state. There is the experience of the rushing of the blood, the emptiness of the visceral, the aggressivity that doesn’t know if it is rage or lust, destructive or erotic. Of course there is also the matter of memory (and I’m sure Steigler will writes about this); that which presents itself to me as particularly emotionally salient will be remembered while that which is not emotionally salient to me will not be so keenly recalled, if it is recalled at all; we all remember having our heart broken, but who remembers what they had for breakfast today 10 years ago? This phenomena is known as selective attention and involves a selectivity of neural encoding that impacts on long-term memory retention. It is why Coca Cola adverts appeal to a sense of family, to a warm feeling, to a feeling of safety, or to a sense that it is youthful, vibrant, culturally hip and so on; in short, it is why neuroadvertising works so well. It is why semiocapitalist consumers don’t have to be convinced of the virtues of consumption but will happily consume the consumption of others in TV shows like Cribs, and it is why the English riots of 2011 had as a component the revenge of the desire of the excluded consumer (cf. Baumann’s analysis of the situation).

What I have described above is called the flight-or-fight response. It is the priming of the body for escape and/or violence and it is what has managed to life just that little step ahead death, at the level of the species and at the level of each organism. The idea that it is perfectly adaptive (even if adaptionism didn’t have its own problems) is misleading because it is also a generic mediation system for a number of psychopathologies; the bodily system of safety is also a bodily system of distress. When we talk about a constant state of physiological arousal the pathologies that immediately spring to mind are the anxiety disorders, especially generalised anxiety disorder. GAD is characterised by a low but persistent state of anxiety, while panic disorder is characterised by extreme, repetitive, transient states of anxiety. These two disorders are common among the psychiatric population, especially those treated in the community who never actually see a psychiatric worker but are prescribed betablockers,benzodiazapines, or so-called “selective” serotonin reuptake inhibitors or breathing exercises by GPs or family doctors. Although we typically think of it as a condition suffered by soldier or rape survivors, post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that is mediated by a traumatic event. I don’t wish to go into the complex debates around what constitutes “trauma” and what constitutes an “event” but for now I want to focus on the empirical record. This record shows that children who undergo bullying or women who live through consistent levels of domestic abuse can develop PTSD. This is important here because I think that it reveals to us that the post-traumatic is less a psychiatric or psychological condition than it is the name for a certain stabilisation of violent and violently pathogenic processes of subjectivation. In this sense we can have a tense agreement with Zizek when he states that there exists

a totally “mediatized” subject, fully immersed into virtual reality: while he “spontaneously” thinks that he is in direct contact with reality, his relation to reality is sustained by a complex digital machinery. Recall Neo,
the hero of The Matrix, who all of a sudden discovers that what he perceives as everyday reality is constructed and manipulated by a mega-computer – is his position not precisely that of the victim of the Cartesian malin génie?[Here]

and completely disagree with him that this mediatised subject is in any sense separable from the

post-traumatic subject – a “living proof” that subject cannot be identified (does not fully overlap) with “stories it is telling itself about itself,” with the narrative symbolic texture of its life…

It is not so much that the mediatised subject’s relation to reality is sustained by digital machinery- as if it wasn’t already relating to reality in relating to itself, but this isn’t the place for a critique of Zizek’s Cartesian exceptionalism (which is beyond me anyway)- it is that this digital machinery, along with the other technologies and techiques that seeks a direct affectation and activation of the organic economy of attention, exceeds what the brain is capable of. This is not the post-traumatism that Zizek and Malabou consider in the figure of the Alzheimer’s patient and the person with autism (one wonders if either of these people have ever actually encountered people with either condition in a clinical setting), but a post-traumatism that is born precisely out of the material-phenomenal demand that one be plugged-in to the Matrix at all times and in all places. The problem with the film The Matrix, that Zizek thinks illustrates our relation to the Cartesian cogito so well, is that it is based on a fundamental misreading of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation that treats it as if it were still of the order of a mere simulacrum. In other words, in a properly Baudrillardian world it would be impossible to disconnect from the Matrix! Luckily for us, we do not live in the world that Baudrillard’s theory-fictions describe but that such worlds are imaginable speaks of our proximity to them; whatever shows up as fictionally possible within a given epistemic order must be considered as part of our semiological horizon. Alzheimer’s does display the confabulations that rest beneath our stories about ourselves perfectly and it also shows that trauma can be considered a slow and agonisingly patient exposure to the pathogenic violence. To go beyond Malabou, who seems to contain the trauma of Alzheimer’s to the brain and thereby reveals an utter ignorance of the work of Tom Kitwood and others, the trauma of Alzheimer’s only makes sense when we consider it as a traumatised enaction of an increasingly cognitively (and later, sensorimotor) impoverished world. If the mediatised subject is like the PTSD child or abused woman, if it is like the Alzheimer’s patient then this is because it is subjected to pathogenic processes of subjectivation that operate epistemically and materially.

This post-traumatism can also result in “desubjectification”, a term that refers to the deprivation of interiority experienced as the emptying of value from one’s existence. This is also the condition that Kristeva refers to as an amputated subjectivity, and that manifests itself so frequently in depression. One shouldn’t understand “desubjectication” as the undoing of subjectivation but the production of impotent subjects that don’t experience themselves as such. It is what motivates Jodi Dean to ask the question

How is it that the subject remains reduced to the individual, as if there were an individual who is subjected rather than a collective, exercising the power of its own self-determination, that becomes fragmented and desubjectified, pacified as it is divided up into ever smaller portions?- Here.

Depression and anxiety often go together; there is a wealth of psych-disciplines literature that even suggest that prising them apart is a misrepresentation of reality. Berardi has suggested that today the word “alienation” is defunct, that instead we should consider the term “psychopathology”.

In 1983 Gray (here) proposed a neurobehavioural account of chronic anxiety. In his research chronic anxiety was linked to the overactivation of septohippocampal and Pepez circuits. Gray called this behavioural inhibition system (BIS). BIS interrupts ongoing behaviour to redirect attention to potential threats that show up in the sensorium. At the cognitive level the current sensory input (the landscape of threat) is compared against future predictions based on that stimuli. Where a mismatch occurs the BIS is activated. In the mismatch criteria is assumed to be too low and therefore constant mismatches are generated resulting in chronic BIS activity. This BIS is mediated by norepinephrine and serotonin and is coupled to sympathetic nervous system via the amygdale and hippothalamus. Thus, high levels of arousal are maintained outwith the suffers ability to easily consciously ameliorate them. While this doesn’t explain panic symptoms or post-traumatic disorder as such, it does provide a general way to think about the problem of the economy of attention. (Cf: review of literature connecting BIS to anxiety).

One can recall a time around the dot-com crash of 2000 when a number of books dealing with the topic of the attention economy appeared in bookstores. Economists suddenly became aware of the simple fact that in a semiocapitalist world, the main commodity becomes attention. The 1990s saw an era of increasing productivity, increasing enthusiasm for production, increasing happiness of intellectual workers, who became entrepreneurs and so forth in the dot-com mania. But the 1990s was also the Prozac decade. You cannot explain what Alan Greenspan called the “irrational exuberance” in the markets without recalling the simple fact that millions of cognitive workers were consuming tons of cocaine, amphetamines, and Prozac throughout the 1990s. Greenspan was not speaking of the economy, but the cocaine effect in the brains of millions of cognitive workers all over the world. And the dot-com crash was the sudden disappearance of this amphetamine from the brains of those workers.- Franco “Bifo” Berardi.2011. Time, acceleration, and violence. Here.

Whether or not this is quote provides a true story it does provide an approach to thinking the attention economy that highlights the corporeal aspect of capitalism in a time when the epistemic semio-aspect seeks to assert hegemony. Resistance to capitalism has to begin from bodies and their passions. Politics politics is not exclusively about contested meanings, and processes of subjectivation that occur in the epistemic sphere alone, resistance is not a discursive enterprise alone. I even have some misgivings about the verbal being raised above all other forms of expression (Habermas vs. Ranciere- there is agreement at least on speech, on the speaking subject). Politics is also, surely, about the arrangement of bodies in space, about what bodies can appear where and when, under or against whose watch and guard, in what combinations; there is a sense in which politics is thus about the question of the relation, about forming or deforming them, and why organisation is so central, so crucial to its operation. Part of this question of organisation is also the organisation of the materiality of the affectivity of bodies in their capacity to be affected. A simple withdrawal from the world of hyperstimulation or the advocacy of a “revolutionary public health” campaign to “consciousness raise” out of the depths of depression through pharmacology or mindfulness techniques alone can’t be all that we advocate- that would make us identical to the existing psychiatric system that is enmeshed in neoliberal governmentality and capital markets. To be even more cutting, it would be to identify with the problem itself.

We live in a ‘dark age of appetites‘ and passions. This “dark age of appetites” is a fantastic way of talking about the contemporary scene. While I am looking at the production of a new left political party, and thereby getting involved (for the first time) in “political politics”, I do so tactically, provisionally and entirely from within a perspective that recognises this dark age, this age in which democracy and the passions can’t communicate except in the sense of the distribution of bodies in (il)legitmate spaces. The passions can be made to speak, indeed the pathological conditions are often seen in those signs and symptoms that are themselves characterised by the sign-use (ie: alogia; pressured speech; disorganised speech of all varities- word-salad, loose associations and non-sense). What is interesting about the democracy of Ranciere and those who follow him (Todd May for instance) is its lack of form and its explosive core of refusal- the identification of a wrong, the contesting of meanings and of material-aesthetic partitions. Of course the riot of 2011 that haunt me- “us”?- were evidence and enaction of the “dark age of passions”…this is a much better formulation than the “sad passions”… yet the problem of Ranciere is his verbosity, his over appreciation- in line with much of the continental tradition, and indeed of the profession of philosophy itself, carried out as it is by paid and sometimes tenured wordsmiths. I am more interested in the demands that bodies in space can make prior to the political demands that they might formulate. In this respect the dark age of passions is an age of inarticulate demands, demands at the level of the body and therefore they are visceral demands, a visceral politics that refuses the level of representation and constitution. If this is the anarchic moment that must be celebrated, an immanent anarchism that can’t be done away with or forgotten, the question nonetheless remains that of organisation. Even dark passions must be organised, must be given form…in the stoic language; must be cultivated! Such a cultivation would be the job of a movement, an affinity group and- why not!- a party!

The minute the party turns on this anarchism, the moment that it establishes an arche or seeks to enshrine the theoretically advanced membership as anything more than an intellectual vanguard, that is when it must be obliterated. The calls within Occupy for democracy shouldn’t follow the mode of consensus-decision making that so large a movement can’t keep to if it wants to continue (and all the Bonana-insurrectionist talk of rejecting the “myth of mass” is itself caught up in a fetishisation of mass, scale and size rather than recognising its practical necessity for “revolution”- the emancipatory recomposition of society that goes beyond class society).

Maybe the point is not to follow Badiou’s pseudo-anarchism, but to ask how someone like Ranciere would go about constructing a party. If we are seeking to “repeat” the party, rather than simply “return” to it, there are questions to be asked. Indeed, should not “party” simply name the name of what results from the principle of the united front, such a front as the Italian left failed to achieve and so gave Mussolini all the space he needed to take the state for fascism.

Whatever else politics is doing, today it must also seek to defend not just those gains made by the working class that are now under threat from socioeconomic austerity, but is must also defend the body and it’s affectivity from its hyperactivite overactivation and/or nervous exhausted collapse that capitalism generates by bombarding the mediatised subject and demanding the double-bind “Pay attention! Don’t burn out!” Political organisation must not just be the organisation of principles, of activists, of demand, but also of the affects; it must be the organisation of rage.

The continual question of the negative passions. The undeniable potency of them, the undeniable force that erupts with anger and rage. I don’t question their value from a Neitzschean perspective but from an ancient one, from the perspective of Seneca. The oft remarked story of Plato who froze in his place for hours after raising his hand to strike a slave: “I am punishing an angry man”, he is said to have remarked to a passing student or friend (did Plato have friends? can a man with such a thought as his be so vulnerable as to be exposed in the production of a friendship?) Seneca says that anger does not attempt to influence the mind, as all the other passions do, but that it seeks to DESTROY it. Maybe such a destruction of the everyday consciousness- full as it is of its own impotence, its own solipisistic perspectival imprisonment (how we yearn to see through the eyes of the other), its own heavy sadnesses- is a goal worth attaining. But then what? Seneca reminds us that an enraged soldier can’t fight to win but only to inflict harm, he flails instead of striking at the weak spots, and he doesn’t notice when he is injured, outmanned, and about to be crushed. The same question returns to me again and again, and I still don’t really know what it means: how do we organise rage? This seems imperative! Crucial! If the negative passions are a weapon then how do we use them collectively and with skill and precision? Is there a way that we can claim the attention economy for ourselves? Such would be to produce a political therapeutics that would not be reducible to mere therapy. This therapeutics would itself be part of a politics, it would be part of our communist praxis, but it would not follow Franco Berardi’s own notion that we relax, slow down, get senile.

Notes on Laurelle’s “Who are the minorities and how to think them”; part 1,

Minorities represent a certain type of problem both insistent or inevitable and never resolved .

Minorities are a problem. What does this mean? In ‘A summary of non-philosophy’, Laurelle states that non-philosophy, his science of philosophy, arises out of reflection- a bending back upon oneself- with two problems. These problems are the status of the One in philosophy, and the status of philosophy itself. A third problem emerges in this other text and that is the problem of how to think according to the One, rather than merely thinking the One. Later again, the problem is restated as that of thinking in a ‘rigorous theoretical manner’ about philosophy in a way that is not alien to philosophy. In each of these instances Laurelle states that ‘this is the new terms of the problem’. The two problems seem to be related, to be one problem insofar as they both address the problem of the One. Again, Laurelle will tell us that

‘the solution constitutes a new problem’. The entire operation of non-philosophy, we are told, works through this strange relation: ‘through a duality (of problems) which does not constitute a Two or a pair, and through an identity (of problems, and hence solutions) which does not constitute a Unity or a synthesis.

Here is Laurelle’s radical immanence, and an attempt to conceive of a mode of thinking that is capable of being absolutely faithful to that immanence, seeking to assure it with no privileged terms and giving it over to no division that is not also part of its unity. There seems to be a thought of partition or of a metaxy (that itself is not an “in-between” of absolutely separate and separable being but the very essence of their being separate) in this; the One is divided but its division are the mode in which it is held together. Should the One (otherwise Identity, otherwise Ego, otherwise the Real) ever attain unity or final division then it should cease to be, which is itself an inadequate way of speaking as Laurelle’s one can’t be reduced to the term “Being” and it can’t be made to fit into the epistemic correlations of Thought. This latter point is precisely why the One can’t be thought, can’t be an object of philosophy but takes philosophy as its object in non-philosophical thinking according to, in determination with the One. In the Stoics the injunction was to live according to nature; in Laurelle’s hands this becomes the injunction to think from within the Real, to see from within the Real rather than trying to transcend, arrest, or otherwise attempt to conquer it. Philosophy typically conquers through epistemic sovereignty- decision, category, division, synthesis- and this is what non-philosophy takes as the opening problem from which it emerges.

What does this tell us about what a problem is for Laurelle? It tells us that a thought that is from immanence can’t take the minority as anything other than a problem insofar as the minority is a figure of a generic-particular other. The other can not be thought of as opposed to Identity because there is always already the fact that they are caught up in an unfamiliar sameness, an impersonal sameness that traverses each of them. Insofar as this is the case, the One here is akin to a thought of the multiple singular called “flesh”. The minority is a problem because it can’t be thought faithfully on the basis of a decision or as a category that separates it in the last instance from the majority. While this is precisely how we think the distinction between the two, a thought that didn’t pass through the binary of same-other/division-unity, would be a thought that would understand the minority as a separation of the One from itself, just as a hand is a specialisation of the body that, although the majority of the body is not-hand, nonetheless remains body and thus also not-hand. Similarly, in a Marxist vein, the proletariat is that social class that is the dissolution of society, at once radically separate from but not finally outside of the rest of society. Indeed, it is the nature of the proletariat- as the part with no part, the included exclusion, the class under the logic of the ban- that they are immanent to the social- another candidate name for the One- in the very mode of being its negation, its dis-confirmation, its dissolution, and being itself wholly in the negative. The logic of the partition is that each threshold is a division that is also a unification and as such means that it can be neither of these terms. If Laurelle can speak of a duality that is not a Two or a pair it is because he is speaking of a dual that is not a duel, even against its phenomenal and existential appearance and experience as such, and that does not constitute itself as a dualism.

We can see the way in which a problem operates for Laurelle. A problem is that which poses the very nature of the One, it is a problem-in-One, a problem in immanence. There is no solution- the solution only engenders a new problem, is in fact the transformation of a problem from this specific expression to this one- only the ongoing complication and descent into the problem-atic. This is reminscent of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim, in What is philosophy? that

concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning and which can themselves only be isolated or understood as their solution emerges.

A solution is a settling or an ordering: when we reach a solution the problem is finished with and we can be satisfied that we have done our best, that we have laboured to find such and such a way of “solving”, of finding the answer to a question, of finding an answer to a the question, of arresting, freezing, and putting in its place something that would not stay still, some impertinence, some pressing matter, some horror. The solution emerges from the problem, but is itself only another problem, the same problem transformed. This is the logic of obsession, of a visceral thought, a though that does not think but which attempts to articulate itself in gestures, in movements, and, yes, in the miscommunicating of philosophical speech and writing. Yet the minority is a problem that can’t be resolved, which is to say it is a problem which resists final determination, being fixed in a place. It is, therefore, the problem of political thought.

That the minority is a problem that is inevitable and insistent is obviously owing to the operation of all politics (even consensus-decision making can’t be unanimous in every instance, and even where it is one can always imagine it as inauthentic or even that I- as one of the One- am divided against myself and that, perversely, perhaps I even enjoy being this division that does not divide). Excessively though, the inevitability of the minority is also prefigured in this ability of self-division, of the subject being nonlocalised and nonunitary, and comes with the force of the connotations of “inevitable” such as fated and necessary; in this regard the absence of the appearance of a minority is in fact the very promise of such appearance and of such already haunting the given order. This necessity is doubled in the fact that it comes not only from this nonlocality but also from the very fact that politics presupposes disagreement, and that only a reactionary-conservative utopian thinking would assume there could ever be a resolution to disagreement in itself. Such a “final solution” would in fact be a vision of transcendence that sought to betray immanence. That the minority is insistent is simply that it insists: I understand by this that the minority makes demands, that it insists that it be listened to and/or observed and attended to, but that it also insists on itself. This self-insisting, this insistence on the value of the minority, is best seen in the work of the insurrectionist anarchists who revel in their minority (though not necessarily minoritarian) status. The insurrectionist father, Max Stirner, even wrote to the effect that wherever there was an order- a solution- the Egoist or the Own would transgress that order. There is a profound demo-cratic nature to the minority in that it thus keeps politics in operation (a la Ranciere), but it is also prfoundly anti-democratic insofar as it has in itself the potency to effective preclude decision making. (Here, I want to emphasis the ambiguity of “effective”; it is a word that hides a ruthlessness). There is also a manner in which this problem of the minority is the problem of the anarchic Socratic asking of impertinent questions, and so locates itself at the very heart of the birth of “western thought”, and can thus move along the Platonic or Cynical trajectories.

In another connection, Francois Dastur has written that

Our epoch is characterized by an ‘obsession with the other’ because it is profoundly marked by the development of individualism. There is an apparent paradox in this: the relation to the other becomes obsessive only when it is self-evident, only when a being-in-common or existence shared with others appears no longer as a factual given, but rather as a problem to resolve or a task to accomplish.

It is, I think, provisionally and hesitantly, also this register in which Laurelle is speaking of the minority as a problem. The political field constitutes the minority as a problem because it appears as this other over which we ceaselessly obsess, because of the obviousness of the relation- the minority must be included because it is included, has been counted, even as the majority determines that it is that segment that does not get to determine the mode of its inclusion, and so does not count; and paradoxically, is the included that excludes itself, the counted that demand another counting, part of the order that surges with dis-organisation. This being-in-common, this existence that we share in (the allusion to Jean-Luc Nancy should be appreciated), is exactly the problem that the problem of the minority impertinently insists on. There is the sense that the minority is not a factual given (indeed, today who among us is in the minority? Laurelle was writing this before the advent of the neofeudalist language of the 99%), but that it must be accomplished. How does one accomplish a minority? How does one do “being a minority?”*

Here, again, is a pure expression of the problem of the minority in real political terms:

We do not recognize the right of the majority to impose the law on the minority, even if the will of the majority in somewhat complicated issues could really be ascertained. The fact of having the majority on one’s side does not in any way prove that one must be right. Indeed, humanity has always advanced through the initiative and efforts of individuals and minorities, whereas the majority, by its very nature, is slow, conservative, submissive to superior force and to established privileges.

This is anarchist revolutionary Malatesta speaking the universal insistence that is to be located within each and every particular claim by specific minorities. It is also this moment that finally makes Lenin remark that left communism was an infantile disorder. In our thought today it is this question of the minority that we must attend to because it is a problem that one can’t simply step outside of the field of the problem. The labour of the problem of the minority, or rather the “problematisation” that the minority posits to any established social order and to any attempt at political organisation, is ongoing. If politics involves the identification of wrongs, the contestation of the meanings of the signifier, and the arrangement of space, the arrangement of bodies in relation to one another, it is therefore also fundamentally about the minority. Following Dastur, the minority is problem insofar as it is something that it must be resolved but also in the sense that it must be achieved. This is a two-fold movement, like that of wave first running into shore and then dragging itself away.

To even think about producing a new party, to think about political organisation, we must be keenly aware both of the minority as a problem and as a problematisation of such a party. Laurelle goes on to say that the minorities- let us remember that Laurelle speaks them in the plural, and not only minorities but types of problem- are a ‘theoretical impasse’. In this regard they are part of the very aporetic structure of political thought conceived of as a domain of the praxis of struggle, suggesting that any thought that attempts to liquidate or not to go with the minorities is already not political. This is also to point out that this is simply the case for political thought and as such it is not something to shy away from. The question for us might be how to consider the minority- the demo-cratic, the an-archic- and to organise it in such a way as not to occlude or betray it, whilst not being paralysed by it: Can there be a mass party of the minority?


*On this question see: Schurmann, Reiner. “On Constituting Oneself as an Anarchist Subject.” Praxis International 6, no. 3 (1986): 294–310.

Do you suffer?

My other page. Catastrophic Edge, is now being used as a kind of library of things I find interesting and/or informative around the issue of work.Work (or specifically anti-work) was the root of my politicisation, and while vuknerability is a key political concept around these parts the issue of work is one that is still keenly felt.

On vulnerability, Corey Robin has a good article at the Jacobin on the political distribution of vulnerability- something I intend to write on in the near future. Here is an extract from Robin’s essay, that echoes Foucault’s contention that ‘society must be defended’:

Returning to the language of fear, we can say that in the state of nature, the fear of death or bodily destruction entitles us to do anything we think might protect us from real or sincerely perceived dangers (as the defenders of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, essentially claim). Under the sovereign, however, that fear does not so entitle us — unless, again, we, as individuals, are immediately and incontrovertibly threatened. Once we agree to submit to the sovereign, he becomes the decider of our fears: he determines whether or not we have reason to be afraid, and he determines what must be done to protect us from the objects of our fear.

Hobbes’s argument has three implications that are relevant to contemporary politics. The first is that it is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties. When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state. Instead, the government makes a choice: to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.

Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations. The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.

Barbarism and anarchism

This post isn’t a proper post. Instead, it is a reply to a post by Levi Bryant, and to one of his respondents. I post it here simply to show my thinking-on-the-page, and because my replies don’t seem to appear on his blog.

I have a friend with an interest in history. For him, there is nothing “special” about the Holocaust. To him, it is only the tip of the iceberg…that it, it is the peak of a submerged mountain of horrors. When discussing this with him, what is needed is always to remember that it is not a question of numbers when it comes to the Holocaust, but a question of the application of the processes of bureaucratic rationalisation to the question of mass murder. The bureaucratic form is what makes the Holocaust what it is, but only when it is coupled with the identification of an absolutely criminal other (an ontologically criminal other). It is the restructuring of an ancient project of transcendence. The source of human barbarism comes from this ancient project. The Nazi project is a Heroic project in the sense that Ernest Becker give the word (this is perhaps why Heidegger could be seduced by it). That experiments in terror management theory have been able to induce affirmative responses in contemporary American students in relation to the Holocaust (as the Divine punishment of the Jews), gives some empirical credence to the broad form of Becker’s argument.

I’m also tempted to ask if there isn’t a degree to which we have to remember that just as people attempt to naturalise ethics, so to we can naturalise evil. Man is the (insert favoured term here) animal. Humanity’s violence is part of its animality, that expression of which we call culture is what teaches us “how” to express it. Just as we have rules of emotional display (to stereotype: Americans are loud, British are reserved, Japanese are hyper-reserved), so to we have rules for violence display. This is my own conjecture, at any rate, but the general shape of it isn’t alien to developmental psychology (even if it is presented as overly cognitive):

On the idea that structure alone determines the violence of institutions and/or ways of being together sounds to my ears anarchist. It is in the way things are organised hierarchically that the perpetuation of violence and inequality is founded; each hierarchy is founded on violence and each hierarchical organisation, in order to maintain itself, must utilise violence in order to reproduce itself. Yet this isn’t anarchist per se. This is a simplistic critique at the heart of the kind of “post-left” anarchisms (elements of the insurrectional milieux and the whole hoard of the anti-civ movement).

Yet I doubt that Levi is simply calling for a politics that is against structure in the same way that a Wolfi Landsteicher or Bob Black might be. I don’t think Bryant’s post is stating structure alone is bad. Levi’s call seems to me to be more that we pay attention to structure. I recall writing an undergrad dissertation on Foucault, suggesting that a post-Foucaultian anarchist organisation would have to be hyper-plastic in the sense that it couldn’t ever allow its structure to ossify. Yet in this sense, we’d only be in the “tyranny of structurelessness” that has already been shown to allow the emergence of unacknowledged hierarchies. Instead, Levi seems to be saying that particular structures are fertile or pregnant with particular beliefs; it is as if structure is the factical organisation of possibility, opening up some possible attitudes and beliefs, whilst simultaneously closing down others.

From within certain structures certain thoughts are more or less possible. In a concrete example: I am a mental health nurse and I have worked in the NHS. Within that structure- and within the structure of a private hospital ward as too- it is impossible for me to generate the belief that all my patients are victims of an abuse of psychiatric-state power. It is possible for me to think that many of them are, but it is simply not possible for me to think that they all are. This is because the structure of a psychiatric ward is such that I am in direct face-to-face contact with my patients, and because I am also in direct contact with other agencies and individuals who have worked with and known them. Indeed, from the ward- and even more so from the position of a community nurse- I become entangled in individual patient’s entire life system. Just as I can’t generate the thought that all patients are victims, so to I couldn’t generate the thought that schizophrenia is a chronic degenerative disease that results in the death of the sufferer. I can’t have this belief, would never generate it, because it is empirically invalidated in my dealings with many of my patients. Yet this belief *was* available for Emil Kraeplin, the father of modern psychiatry and the “discoverer” of the psychoses. What makes this difference? I would suggest that in no small part it was the structure of psychiatry, including the structure of concrete psychiatric institutions, such as those in which Kraeplin carried out his research .

In this way, to return to Foucault, I think there might be more in this that asks us to engage in a politics that doesn’t let the structure recede or otherwise naturalise itself. Its not that structure is bad, its that structure is dangerous. In this way anarchism does have something important to teach us: hierarchical social structures give rise to hierarchical ways of thinking. I haven’t looked at the paper Levi links to, but the idea that a certain kind of thought could be “theological” is immediately anarchist in my ears, insofar as there is the establishment of a relation between “God and the State”. Somewhere between anarchism and barbarism, there is a way of organising that embraces organisational plasticity and responsiveness, without dissolving-withering into nothing.

Political plasticity: part one.

Thus, even more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; it is, as its common name indicates, ubiquity made visible; and it is indeed in this aspect that it stands as a miraculous matter: the miracle is always a brusque conversion of nature. Plastic has remained totally impregnated with this admission: it is less an object than the trail of a movement.-Roland Barthes.

Recently there has been something of a disagreement going on in the philosophical blogosphere that revolves around Alex Galloway’s accusation of the capitalism inherent in object-oriented thought and certain people close to speculative realism. This disagreement has produced a few interesting comments, not least among them Levi Bryant’s post Pluripotecy: some remarks on Galloway. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of that disagreement but I do want to elaborate some kind of commentary on a part of Levi’s post dealing with Galloway, and an earlier post entitled Networks. I want to talk about, in a modest way, political plasticity. In order to talk about political plasticity I want to get more intimate with the idea of plasticity as such, and in order to do so I want to outline a story. In Adam Curtis style, this is the abbreviated story of how neuroplasticity came to be our dominant conceptual frame for talking about the brain.

At this point most people know that neuroscience has undergone a shift in its understanding of the brain. The brain used to be thought of as having all of its basic organic units, neurons, from birth and that these units were organised and fixed in that organisation within the developmental period of infancy and early childhood. The brain was seen as a three pound mass arranged in a static manner that did not elaborate beyond that early development. What a brain was, what it could, was fixed and any further changes in neuroanatomical structures and functions were those produced by psychiatric conditions and trauma or disease mediated impairment. If what a brain could do changed, if it deviated from its fundamental wiring, this could only be conceived in terms of aberration, deterioration, and degeneration. The brain was rigid, total, and closed. Maybe the most extreme example of this comes from the work of the man who has been seen as the father of modern psychiatry, Emile Kraepelin. It was Kraepelin who first documented the existence of what would come to be known to this day as the schizophrenias but which he tellingly named dementia praecox. This earlier name meant that the brain of the individual who suffered from the so defined psychotic illness had entered an inevitable decline in its capacities that could only result in death. ‘Dementia praecox’ translates as ‘premature dementia’ and a dementia is an organic brain disease in which cognitive capacities are progressively and irreversibly eroded. For Kraepelin the essence of the disease lay in its incurability. Much can be said about this conception of a form of distress that remains controversial today, especially in regard of how it shapes and legitimises so much of psychiatry’s power whilst revealing the paucity of scientific authority that justifies and naturalises that power, but this is not the place for such a discussion. The point here is that Kraepelin, a well respected empirical scientist who sought to alleviate human suffering, could not conceive of what some would now call an example of neurodiversity (or brain difference) as anything but a tragic affliction that moved only in the direction of increasing madness that resulted in an inevitable death. If the brain was static than any variability was evidence of, and constitutive of, pathology. The brain could not differ from itself. I would also contend that contemporary psychiatric practice, despite changes in its theoretical pronouncements, remains utterly Kraepelinian.

The paradigm shift alluded to above, and with which most people concerned with the mind in any sense are now familiar, was enacted by the discovery of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis refers to the fact that brains produce new neurons throughout the life of the organism, and neuroplasticity refers to the fact that both new and existing neurons and neuronal circuits continually undertake restructuring and changes to their function in response to interactions with the environment. Much more can be said about neuroplasticity and the way this dynamic is embodied, and how this relates to our evolutionary becoming as a species, but for our present purposes the important thing to note is how this discovery fundamentally alters how we conceive of what a brain can do. The brain is not a fixed unit in the way that Kraepelin would have understood it in the 1800s but is open and responsive to experience. The brain, in a popular phrase, is plastic.

The picture elaborated here that sees a historical shift in our understanding of the brain might not be as significant as this brief sketch of the story makes out. It is not so much that the story is inaccurate as it is that some voices have been raised to ask to what degree the transition between these two pictures of the brain are ruptural, and to what extent the plasticity story has become a rhetorical narrative without content. First of all, and this is nothing revelatory to say, the idea of the brain being plastic is not entirely without precedent. In William James’s landmark text The principles of psychology the pragmatist philosopher postulated that the brain was capable of reorganisation in response to experience as early as 1890. Again, in 1896 George R. Wilson published a text on the roles of what would later be called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity play in psychiatric disorders. Indeed, work can be found that discusses plasticity of brain tissue and function from the 1890s onward, with the term ‘neuroplasticity’ being coined in 1948. The second point concerns the way in which plasticity is regularly deployed popularly without much in the way of explanation or specificity, becoming a kind of empty signifier that merely means that the brain is capable of change.

There are several ways in which the brain is considered plastic. For instance, the connections between neurons can change in strength becoming stronger or weaker, more or less effective. In this instance, known as synaptic plasticity, the quantity of neurotransmitters release to a synapse across the gap between two neurons can be higher or lower and this, in turn, can alter how receptors respond to that neurotransmission. Synaptic plasticity can also refer to how many receptors are available to receive a given neurotransmitter that has been released. This is effectively a material change of the way in which parts of the brain communicate with one another and it underlies the so-called dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia, which is that either a change in the quantity or in sensitivity to the neurotransmitter dopamine produces psychotic symptoms that lead clinicians to diagnose someone as schizophrenic. I will not run through all of the ways in which neuroplasticity can be conceived but I will point to a recent study that is indicative of a new form of plasticity that is a candidate for showing how social isolation can affect the brain such that the form of experience we call depression emerges [link
The point of these examples is that when we discuss how the brain can be plastic we are referring to specific material processes in the biology of consciousness. A further point is the way that when we pay attention to the specifics we discover that our experience shapes our brain which shapes our experience. We could go on here to discuss the example of depression I link to and how this shows that all this is an issue of embodiment for social isolation means nothing if it does not mean the withdrawal of a body from interaction with other bodies in a shared social space. However, that would be to wander to far from path I am treading. To summarise, the discovery of neuroplasticity is a real and important contribution to neurology and to its contribution to how we understand ourselves, but it is one that has been seen as creating an abyss between historical and contemporary brain science and, by extension, an analogous abyss between one conception of human nature and another. Instead, there has been something of an evolution in the understanding of neuroplasticity even if it is one that stumbled forward without having always enjoyed the status of mainstream banality that its rhetorical use indicates its conceptual handling currently enjoys. This is not dissimilar to something I want to talk about under the name political plasticity. This kind of plasticity is not new, and I am not sure I can do justice to it in what follows. All the same, I’ll go on.

I want to turn to Catherine Malabou’s way of talking about plasticity, a concept she derives from both neuroscientific discourse and Hegelian dialectical philosophy and which she has been developing throughout her philosophical career. For Malabou neuroscience seems to have done what Foucault thought that theory had failed to achieve; to cut off the king’s head. Anyone reading this is probably familiar with the idea of the head as a metaphorical stand-in for the sovereign in political philosophy, especially in Rousseau and Hobbes’s Leviathan. The sovereign is usually thought of as the head, the mind, the brain, the organ that co-ordinates, dominates, originates, and typifies the state in these discourses of the body-politic. The brain is thought to make all the decision and this translates in a way that is immediately understandable to the justification that the sovereign is the one who makes all the decisions, who keeps the rest of the body in line and making sure the hand performs the job assigned it, while the stomach performs the job assigned to it. The head maintains order. This is the idea of the brain-sovereign. I make no claims to originality when I say that this is the statist body; the body determined by the head. One of Malabou’s claims in What should we do with our brains? is that the science of neuroplasticity exposes the error of this organising conceptual metaphor. We might think that this opens up a space to think about a non-statist political philosophy but Malabou doesn’t follow that route. She goes on to instead draw parallels between the neuroscientific and the post-Fordist discourses of flexibility, of the ability to infinitely reorganise, and to hierarchies that don’t localise or ossify but remain open and nodal. Foucaultian power, the society of control, neoliberalism look just like the supposedly new image of the brain that neuroscience has discovered. To this list of terms for palpating late capitalism Malabou adds that what she is discussing, this decentralised acephalic body-politic, is ‘neuronal ideology’. The plastic brain does not have fixed centres, it does not have permanent circuits without their continual activation and reactivation, and it is always open to new circuits and pathways being forged. So to the plastic society and the plastic market. (Here one might legitimately ask if this hadn’t already been described by the Marxist observation that all that is solid melts into air). In her own words:

Employability is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. If I insist on how close certain managerial discourses are to neuroscientific discourses, this is because it seems to me that the phenomenon called “brain plasticity” is in reality more often described in terms of an economy of flexibility. (Malabou 2008, What should we do with our brains? p.46).

What Malabou is talking about here is the well established identification of the condition of labour as one of precarity. The history of precarity is the history of the rise of neoliberalism and carries us into the current condition of austerity, the nostalgic retrofitting of neoliberal policy and aesthetics. Of course we should be careful to note, as Mario Tronti and others in the autonomist tradition have, that the production of precarity was not the nefarious design of a contingent of ruthless venture capitalists but also depended upon the demands of an increasingly powerful labour movement (although capitalists do not escape the circuit, to continue the neuronal metaphor). In the 1970s labour figured flexibility as a kind of decoupling from a life dominated by work, by its patterns, space, places, and routines. Flexibilisation meant a degree of autonomy. The shift from such an autonomy to the conditions of neoliberalism and austerity have been well traced at this point and don’t bear repeating here. Suffice to say, the power of workers to live independently of capital’s demands was directly translated into one of capital’s most potent modes of organising labour and life thereafter. It is in part because of this translation and domestication that Malabou wants to redeem what is plastic from neuroplasticity and late capitalism’s alleged convergence, and to activate political and neuronal circuits that break with those responsible for our domestication. As she puts it the goal is to ‘refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion’ (ibid. p.78).
Against the neurocapitalist picture of plasticity as an infinite flexibility, of being an ever ready to be modified subject, happy to fit itself to whatever market produced social conditions it finds itself in by seeking the most adaptive and well regulated affective, existential, and social responsivity, Malabou wants to think plasticity differently. Malabou again:

The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in not only the creation of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model”

(ibid. p. 6).

I have admittedly glossed over several steps in Malabou’s argument in order to arrive at a point where we can talk about plasticity in a different mode. The point isn’t whether or not Malabou’s account of plasticity is true but whether it can be used as an organising metaphor for thinking politically. In this last quote plasticity is not meant to be received by us as the idea of an infinite flexibility or as a naturalisation of that same flexibility but rather as a name that gives expression to a dialectical tension between creation and destruction. Plasticity is the name of a process of creative refusal, of a kind of wilful divergence from typicality or the same. As such that which is plastic is understood as that which produces itself and simultaneously undoes itself, that which denies its own stasis and sets itself again in motion, a kind of restlessness. In the same text Malabou will talk about the plastic brain as ‘formable and forming’. To be the kind of thing that is formable is to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to be given form but at the same time to be the kind of thing that is forming is also to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to form itself and its environment. Essentially, this is a dynamic dialectic that occurs within and outside of the plastic thing. The plastic has no essence outside its giving and being given form. Between the thing and its environment there is an agency that cannot be located in one of these terms but arises out of the interaction of their separate agencies. Malabou uses the example of clay in order to talk about things that have the capacity to be given form. Let’s consider that.

In pottery one begins with clay. The potter is presented with a lump of earth, a malleable lump of wet, cold clay. This clay is not presented to the potter without form. It looks like a lump of clay; it is a block of brown, yielding but resistant, solid matter. As a block it has a shape and has dimension in three dimensional space. It feels cold in the potter’s hand, and when wet it will feel slick and slippery. It smells a particular way and is mottled in particular ways. Some of those mottles were there when it was presented to the potter and some may have been caused by her fingers pressing in as she examined its dimensions. The clay is a material thing with a form the potter has not bestowed on it. The clay must be wedged, either by hand or by machine, in order that air bubbles that would cause cracks in its surfaces in the kiln are removed. Next, the clay is made into a ball (or a series of smaller balls maybe) and thrown onto the wheel. Now on the wheel the intended form is moulded by hand and maybe with the aid of other tools. A number of other steps might take place before it’s fired in the kiln but it is at the point of throwing the clay that we’ll stop. Things can go wrong at the throwing stage. The potter, if inexperienced, might fail to produce the shape they wanted to or, as can happen, the intended shape may be abandoned out of a sense that it is not ‘in’ the clay, that some other shape is ‘in’ the clay. What is the point of this? That clay, Malabou’s example of a formable thing, is already the kind of thing that can partake in its being given form. The potter’s autonomy is not absolute, she must work on a pre-existent form, with the use of multiple other objects, and learned techniques, and, even if she is an expert, the clay might resist the model of her intended product. Between her imagination, the material ensemble required, her eyes and hands and the clay itself, interactions take place. It might well be that this is not so dramatic an example as we could think of but I like it for its modesty. Were this a post on ontology I would be tempted to pursue the notion that substance is itself plastic.

A quick summation of the plastic: the plastic is something that forms and is given form, or more importantly has the capacity to form or be given form. The plastic can form and can be given form. Plastics are thus always open to environmental others. They are also the kind of thing that in activating their capacity to provide themselves form, to do forming, are also engaged in a process of un-forming. Plastics as I am discussing them are neither static nor infinitely flexible, neither ossified and rigid, nor flowing and nebulous. Plastics are also able to resist and maintain their form under pressure; what enters into relations with them does not necessarily re-structure them. Plastics are therefore constitutively resistant or autonomous materials. It is here that I want to turn to Levi Bryant’s recent response to Alex Galloway’s criticism of object-oriented thinkers like himself, Timothy Morton, and Graham Harman. Levi writes that

If everything is defined by the historical setting in which it emerged, if things– above all people –are not pluripotent such that they harbor potentials in excess beyond the way they’re related and deployed in the present, then there’s no hope for ever changing anything. Everything will be tainted through and through by the power dynamics in which it emerged. Everything will be but an expression of those networks of power. It is only where relations can be severed and where entities are pluripotent that emancipatory change is possible.

What I take from Levi’s remarks here, and it is a point that he has stressed on several occasions, is that emancipatory politics, a politics that still identifies itself with revolution and at least a spark of utopian hope, can only exist where things (social systems and all their constituents, including individuals, for instance) have the capacity to give form and to be formed. In order to do either of these things they must not be fixed. In Levi’s terms things are always pluripotent (meaning something like ‘having many powers’) in the same sense that I have been talking about things being plastic. I turn to Levi and draw on this quote in particular because it situates plasticity in a political and not simply metaphorical or ontological context. Levi’s pluripotency is a condition of politics as much as it is a condition of the people and things caught up in those politics. Here Levi seems to be suggesting that a good part of politics has precisely to do with enacting the severing of the dynamical interaction between specific objects and returning things to a more active plasticity. It is only if we are plastic, only if we are not fixed and static (either as defined by history or, as others might want to claim, genetics) that change even makes sense. It is only in our being able to be re/deformed that we can hope for a better world. This conception of agreement finds contemporary resonance in Ranciere’s theorisations of dissensus as the provocation and creation of disruptions in the circuits of power and in the aesthetic arrangement of knowledge, space, bodies, and their acts and productions that maintain those circuits. That relations have the capacity to be otherwise than they are is precisely what makes emancipatory politics even a possibility, and it is also what makes the project so fraught and rife with sectarian conflicts. There is a choreography involved in radical politics, a setting of bodies in motion so that they move differently with one another and with themselves, but no dance follows its choreography perfectly (indeed, the relationship between the choreographic imagination and the concrete dance is a relationship of intense plasticity). The practice of radical politics thus reveals itself as being a practice that admits to and affirms the plasticity of the situation and its players.

What then is political plasticity? Sure, it is just the practice of blowing up social relations, of disrupting them and attempting to find new ways of relating- to our fellow persons, to social groups, to our environment, to the digital sphere, to production, consumption, and whatever else finds itself way into our politics. I also want to suggest it is more than only that and, just like with the story of neuroplasticity and its supposed paradigm rupturing status, this is something that has been around for a long time.

In an earlier post Levi wrote that ‘[N]etworks won’t save us, nor will assemblages. Sometimes we contrast networks and hierarchies in value-laden terms. “Networks good, hierarchies bad!” But like any ontological truth, networks are just what there is’. We have already seen that whether we use Foucaultian, Deleuzian, or neuronal terms this remains the case. The network is an ascendant metaphor and reality, with some decrying it as the ultimate diffusion of power and others embracing it as a decentralised form of social and political organisation. In the same post on networks Levi characterises anarcho-communism as a type of politics that wants to abolish what he calls ‘. These hubs are any specialised social material organisation or object that you have to pass through in order to achieve some given intended end- Levi gives the example of an airport as being a ‘hub’ that allows you to get from your home location to some other location; we could equally well call them checkpoints or, in neuronal terms, ‘centres’. In order for some centres to operate they must pass through other centres. Levi provides the example of construction having to pass through fossil fuels. We could also think about the neuroscientist who must pass through the medical school, or the unemployed worker who must pass through the department of work and pensions. In Levi’s post he states that the communists are the party who want to create new hubs, and he calls this revolution, and states that the anarcho-communist wants to remove all hubs in favour of ‘a distributed network’. It is with this notion of anarcho-communism as seeking a distributed network that I want to introduce the kind of political plasticity I have in mind, in part because I take issue with this characterisation of anarchism, and, more to the point, because it allows me to show that the suggestion that plasticity is a political concept is as old as anarcho-communism itself.

It is in Anarchist communism: its basis and principles that we find a reference to plasticity. In Kropotkin’s massively influential 1927 pamphlet plasticity is not derived from findings from neuroscience but is nonetheless a metaphor that is deployed from within the findings of natural science, specifically from his appreciation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. To quote

By bringing to light the plasticity of organization, the philosophy of evolution has shown the admirable adaptability of organisms to their conditions of life, and the ensuing development of such faculties as render more complete both the adaptations of the aggregates to their surroundings and those of each of the constituent parts of the aggregate to the needs of free cooperation.

What we find here is a brief statement of Kropotkin’s commitment to evolutionary theory, a commitment he is well known for, and one that is perhaps more nuanced than many others who made evolution in a metaphor for political philosophy. Where we might think about evolution as providing a theoretical bedrock (often unarticulated) for teleological progressivist tendencies in the history of political philosophy, those characterised by the idea that some social end would necessarily be accomplished by the movement of history itself (the classless society, the stateless society, the end of history, the triumph of capitalism being the culmination of all historical becoming), Kropotkin isn’t a part with such tendencies. In the above quote Kroptokin clearly has an appreciation of evolution as being a process in which organisms respond or react to the ‘conditions of their life’. Indeed, Kropotkin is well known to have rejected the progressivist elaboration of evolutionary theory propounded by Lamarck. Indeed, against this reading Kropotkin saw periods of biological and social change as episodic and violent, determined by conditions of necessity. Elsewhere, in Anarchism: its philosophy and ideal, Kropotkin would write that his idea of an anarchist society, one fully consonant with the aims of communism, was on that aimed toward

[t]he highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; everchanging, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms.

I would suggest that the evolutionary metaphor that allows Kropotkin to talk about the plasticity of organisation is exactly what allows him to talk about a society that constantly alters the nature of relationships between people in such a manner as to be both durable and taking on new forms. Here, the evolutionary metaphor allows Kropotkin to speak of social organisation as being both stable and enduring whilst being dynamically open to the conditions of life. Anarchist forms do not collapse or dissolve, nor do they remain as they are once they have been established. Yet doesn’t this dialectic between the rigid and the fluid, exhibiting a kind of closure and openness in terms of formation, bring us in line with the ideas of plasticity and plastics we have been discussing? Plasticity finds itself somewhere between, and in a strange antagonism with, rigidity and fluidity, the fixed and the flowing. I want to suggest that this is the kind of social and political organisation that is favoured by anarcho-communism and that this is what makes it the plastic politics.

I’ll hopefully pursue this in the second part of this post. In that second part I will discuss forms of anarchist political organisation in the light of this discussion and attempt to sketch the ways in which they attempt to be at once susceptible to the milieu from which it is organised and resists that milieu so as not to suffer a breakdown of integrity. As I have also used Malabou in the foregoing, it might make sense to return and speak briefly about her notion of a destructive plasticity, as developed in Ontology of the accident. To draw this to a conclusion I want to make it clear that this isn’t really a statement of belief as it is a working through of these ideas. I remain open to being told that this is all nonsense, I’m an unrepentant amateur 🙂

Precariat precluded

In ‘Not Waving but Drowning: Precarity and the Working Class’, Mark Hoskins takes a critical look at the idea put forward by some academics and even parts of the anti-capitalist movement that the “precariat” is the revolutionary subject of our epoch. After examining the subjective conditions of the precarious subject today and comparing its objective conditions to those of the working class of the last century, he goes on to explore how these conditions relate to our end goal, a communist society and what lessons that can teach us in our attempt to get there.

In full here.

Interview with Collective Action

A ‘new’ anarchist organisation based in the UK:

The only way there can be a future for anarchist politics is in making anarchist ideas and methods a practical and coherent tool for organising workplaces, intervening in social struggles and empowering working class communities. Anarchism needs to recapture its traditional terrain of organising, what Bakunin referred to as, the “popular classes” and abandon the dead-end of activism. This means a fundamental re-assessment of what we do and what we hope to achieve. It also means returning, as Vaneigem would call it, to the politics of “everyday life”. To put it bluntly, if your politics cannot relate and potentially organise around the problems and struggles of the twenty or so people you routinely meet through your day (and we don’t mean “activist” friends and circles here, the people you ride the bus with, work with, live next to etc.) then you have no theory of social change. And to clarify, by this we do not mean watering down your politics or dissolving yourself into “community projects”, rather it’s about finding ways to radicalise those connections you have with existing communities to a point where they take on a specific political content – anti-capitalism. It is us, after all, who produce the wealth of this world and any social conflict needs to be waged on the basis of this fact and the need for re-appropriation of the collective product of our labour.

In full here.

And here is a link to their only current position paper.

Democracy without government

Problems with work

Pdf of Kathi Weeks 2011 text The Problem with Work:Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.

From the introduction:

The domination and subordination experienced at work is not merely incidental to processes of exploitation. Carole Pateman’s analysis of the employment contract is illuminating on this point. By her account, the problem with the labor contract is not just a function of the coerced entry that is ensured by the absence of viable alternatives to waged labor, nor is it only a matter of the inequality that is produced as the result of the contract’s terms. To translate this into a Marxist vocabulary, the problem can be reduced neither to forced labor nor to exploitation. Rather, we need to pay more attention to the relationship of dominance and submission that is authorized by the waged labor contract and that shapes labor’s exercise. Exploitation is possible, Pateman notes, because “the employment contract creates the capitalist as master; he has the political right to determine how the labour of the worker will be used” (1988, 149). This relation of command and obedience, the right of the employer to direct his or her employees that is granted by the contract, is not so much a byproduct of exploitation as its very precondition. [emphasis added].

This has always been what I have considered the proper emphasis, and it is why I have been more ready to identify with the anarchists than the Marxists. How many problems with living are the product of problems with working?