attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: communism

This World We Must Leave

Having finished Bifo’s The Uprising, I was reminded of a similarly pessimistic-optimistic communist theorist Jacques Camatte. In many ways Camatte foresaw the condition we are in today and laid out much of the exodus driven theory of the likes of Bifo, Tiqqun, Virno and so on. Camatte is an important and neglected figure in the history of Marxism, inappropriately stolen by the anarcho-primitivists, but, like the others in that list, would eventually formulate (and enact) a form of resistance that was really a retreat. I plan to write something on Camatte for this blog in the near future. This film takes its name from one of his books, “This world we must leave and other essays”.


The visible and the temporal

I share Steven Hickman’s concerns with Paulo Virno and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s politics of exodus/withdrawal. Its essentially the same tactic that Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone articulated in the 1990s; an intoxicated vision that is still appealing and perhaps necessary as a defensive position/conservation policy but that only really acts as a poetry of the social center, the squat, and the occupation. Viewed differently, from another angle, is also the textbook language of the psychdisciplines diagnostic and symptomological speech; the absence of poetry in the descriptions of depression, post-traumatic disassociation, schizophrenic alienation from the sensus communis of participatory meaning production. There is nothing inherently emancipatory in these conditions, the language for which is now transposed onto the political; a perverse justification of Bifo’s analysis of contemporary alienation of psychopathology.

Describing the TAZ, Hakim Bey writes that

FOUCAULT, BAUDRILLARD, ET AL. have discussed various modes of “disappearance” at great length. Here I wish to suggest that the TAZ is in some sense a tactic of disappearance. When the Theorists speak of the disappearance of the Social they mean in part the impossibility of the “Social Revolution,” and in part the impossibility of “the State”– the abyss of power, the end of the discourse of power. The anarchist question in this case should then be: Why bother to confront a “power” which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence by the emptyheaded shit-for-brains who’ve inherited the keys to all the armories and prisons. (Perhaps this is a crude american misunderstanding of sublime and subtle Franco-Germanic Theory. If so, fine; whoever said understanding was needed to make use of an idea?) [1]

This is the primary way in which we ought to understand the temporary autonomous zone. It is ‘a tactic of disappearance’ that allows the insurgent, who has abandoned hopes for a social revolution, to evade the state. The revolution and the state having both become simulacra- although the armories and prisons still seem to be in operation, and violence still remains very real- it is naturally pointless to attempt to reckon with them. If such a reckoning, with its invocation of violence, meant direct armed struggle against the state then I couldn’t agree more that we ought to abandon that way of thinking; armed struggle, as opposed to revolutionary self-defense, has a history of bloody failure in Europe and North America, and to contemplate violence against the state is to already loss sight of the fact that the state manifests itself in such violence through the corporeal human bodies of the very people who radicals ought to seek to get on board. Elsewhere, Hakim also speaks of spectacular violence, the mediatised image of violence that reifies particular instances of political conflict into eternal images of Terror or deliquency. Again, it would be foolish to step willingly into these stereotypes.

Regardless of the falsity of the assumption that the state is a simulcrum and that power is mere simulation, neoliberal capitalism actually requiring a strong security state and an austerity commanding an open and largely uncontested exercise of power, the fact is that the TAZ is predicated on disappearance. Just as the state and power have ceased to exist as anything other than images, so we have ceased to exist. Yet it is at this point that Hakim Bey also states that the tactic of disappearance has a positive moment. The example given is the withdrawal from state school system and the positive re-articulation of that withdrawal in forms such as home schooling. Here, it is not so much that disappearance implies a ceasing to exist but, instead, that there is a vanishing from view. The body of the child in the school is countable and counted, can be disciplined and set into motion in the circulation of the post-Fordist network of economised existence. When the child’s body no longer appears within an element of this network at the proper time and at the proper place then the entire circulation is threatened. While Hakim’s suggestion is one I like (my partner and I intend homeschooling her son- most of the time), homeschooling does not escape a regime of visibility.

Having disrupted a certain distribution of the sensible it has, just as all strategies of refusal risk doing, invoked a recuperative redistribution. Here in the UK, homeschooling has been integrated into the state system to the extent that parent’s are required to inform the local school and council of their intentions; the council might then make informal inquiries about the form of education your child is receiving and, if they have concerns, will issue a ‘school attendance order’. Further to this, to evidence that your child will receive a good standard of education and that you aren’t just a lazy good for nothing, the state requires that parent’s produce an education philosophy. This involves a whole lot of research into educational philosophies and pedagogy for parents who are often not academically inclined, working part-time, and maintaining a household whilst doing the work of having a child with them whenever they are not working. In other words, if feminists correctly identify that affective labour has always been a component of women’s domestic labour then homeschooling requires that an added dimension of cognitive labour be extracted. There is also the fact that homeschooling is expensive and is, in the main, the preserve of the relatively affluent. Homeschooling is clearly not an option that enacts a tactic of disappearance anymore, if it ever was, and it also seems to be an option that the majority of people simply couldn’t take.

Moving on to another example, Hakim talks about the refusal of work. This is a tactic that I think is radical if we follow the reflections on it that the autonomists, the Metropolitan Indians, and, more recently, Kathi Weeks have taken. Hakim’s discussion of it amounts to the idea that

Refusal of Work can take the forms of absenteeism, on-job drunkenness, sabotage, and sheer inattention–but it can also give rise to new modes of rebellion: more self- employment, participation in the “black” economy and “lavoro nero,” welfare scams and other criminal options, pot farming, etc.–all more or less “invisible” activities compared to traditional leftist confrontational tactics such as the general strike. [2]

These are tactics that don’t seem particularly reflexive. Absenteeism, drunkenness, sheer inattention: these are behaviours that are likely to take any refusal of work into the realm of refusal of employment, opening one up to the prospect of poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness. Maybe this is a perfectly good tactic for young unencumbered people, it hardly seems like a they’d work out well as a mass tactic against capitalism. It also doesn’t take into account what kinds of jobs people are doing. Sure, if I work at a video game store or a call center I can partake of these options, but if I’m a nurse, or distribution driver, or some other socially necessary worker? Sabotage is a tactic that I would think would also land most people in the situation of joblessness, unless they were very good at not getting caught! (I used to work in a particularly scummy office and always had daydreams about performing some “human sabotage”: injecting the water cooler with strong laxatives. I never could get the nerve- or the callousness?- to do it; but the thought did help get me through the day). As to the other options, I don’t want or need to reiterate Marx’s position on the lumpen-proletariat. That said, I have always defended people who have scammed the benefit system but today that is simply not an option.

The point of going over these two social examples of Hakim’s ideas on the temporary autonomous zones is simply to point out that disappearance isn’t a very good strategy. There are other ways of thinking about the temporary autonomous zone (the Munich Republic is mentioned; as are raves, squats, and altered states of consciousness) but these are a couple of the examples of the TAZ being more than a personal adventure. It may sound like I am against the TAZ but on the contrary I find it a compelling account of one possible mode of reworking our relationships and challenging the dominant organisation of the temporalities and spatialisations of our lives. A TAZ can disconnect us from the temporality of production and can be enacted in places where our bodies are not supposed to congregate; they can be times and places of learning new ways to relate to each other; they offer us zones of deceleration and destimulation that might ameliorate some of the impacts of our accelerative culture and attentional economy and thereby enjoin politics with a non-depolitising therapeutics; and they can become points of coalescence around which debate and organisation can occur. They are not unimportant events.

TAZs are necessary elements of resistance but they don’t and can’t overcome capitalism. Indeed, the kind of hymns to invisibility that Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee make are precisely the upshot of this kind of thinking. In The Coming Insurrection, a text by the Invisible Committee that is intimately associated with Tiqqun, we are urged to ‘Stay invisible. Put anonymity on the offense'[3]. Invisibility and anonymity are watchwords of the kind of politics that The Invisible Committee thinks is necessary today:

To be visible is to be out in the open – that is, above all to be vulnerable. When the leftists of all nations continually make their cause more “visible” – whether that of the homeless, of women, or of immigrants – in the hope that it will get taken care of, they’re doing exactly the opposite of what they ought to. To not be visible, but rather to turn to our advantage the anonymity we’ve been relegated to, and with conspiracies, nocturnal and/or masked actions, to make it into an unassailable attack-position. [4]

Ironically, The Coming Insurrection is probably one of the most famous texts written by the radical left in some time, and the Tarnac 9 have likewise been given not a little limelight after one of their acts of sabotage. I am not suggesting that the Tarnac 9 were wrong to have sabotaged the train lines that were vital to the logistics of capital in France, just pointing out an amusing and unfortunate side-effect of violence is notoriety, not anonymity. More importantly than that, is the fact that this hymn to invisibility is predicated on two refusals: the refusal of vulnerability, and the refusal of visibility.
The issue of vulnerability is one that many other bloggers besides me have made a point of emphasis. It is an issue that requires a brief diversion but necessary diversion.

The turn to thinking about vulnerability is a way of rethinking politics altogether. It is a way of thinking about politics that follows from an ontological commitment to the primacy of the corporeal. Briefly, whatever exists, whatever is an affective being, exists as a body. I take this to be the fundamental contribution to philosophy made by the Stoics, and it is taken up again in modern philosophy by the phenomenologist of flesh Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Vulnerability names two aspects of bodies. First of all, it points to the condition of the openness, interwovenness, and interpenetration of bodies with one another. Under this condition we speak of corporealism as transcorporealism; bodies form intermatrices in conjunction, collaboration with, within, across, and despite other bodies. On the other hand, vulnerability also names the condition of being exposed to danger, disaster, injury, trauma, destruction and death. In this second instance we can think a range of specific vulnerabilities. I have touched on the idea of homelessness as a form of spatial vulnerability, and we can think of Marx’s analysis of capitalism as one of economic vulnerability, while psychiatry operates a lot of the time with a stress-vulnerability model of illness in which biological predispositions (vulnerabilities) to certain conditions may be triggered by social and existential conditions (stress). Ultimately, these vulnerabilities are carnal; they are vulnerabilities of the body that leave us exposed to that ultimate vulnerability: death.

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, how is it that a collective can cope with the vulnerabilities that it is exposed to? She provides a pertinent answer for the current discussion when she suggests that

There is the possibility of appearing impermeable. Nothing about being socially constructed as women restrains us from simply becoming violent ourselves. And then there is the other age-old option, the possibility of wishing for death or becoming dead, as a vain effort to preempt or deflect the next blow. [5]

Butler will go on to discuss the commonality of bodily vulnerability, artificially limiting it to human bodies, but here she makes the argument that the desire for impermeability can take one of two forms: first, it can reproduce the violence done onto it, becoming the one who discloses and acts on the vulnerability of the other; or, secondly, it can emerge in the form of death or the dream of death. This tells us something about the invisibility recommended by The Invisible Committee. Like Hakim Bey, they want to disappear from the realm of spectacular violence. Unlike Hakim Bey, they want this to be the precondition of a denial of vulnerability. To be visible, they said, is to be vulnerable. Yet simply to exist is to be vulnerable. If The Invisible Committee were talking in terms of harm reduction, that is, of trying to reduce our exposure to vulnerability, then they might have a point. As it stands, I can’t help but read them as indulging in an idealism that thinks it can escape the condition of carnality through a tactic of disappearance (a move Hakim Bey would never have made). In discussing the events that followed 9/11 in the USA, especially in regards to its aggressive retributionist foreign policy, Butler goes on to note that this particular form of idealism has as its effect a kind of subjectivation that

seeks to produce itself as impermeable, to define itself as protected permanently against incursion and as radically invulnerable to attack. [6]

Butler rightly connects this to the logic of all nationalism and we could equally extend it to processes surrounding medical biotechnology, gated communities, and any kind of process of scapegoating. Indeed, in the work of Ernest Becker and the psychology of Terror Management Theory, it is the manipulation of one’s awareness of one’s ontological vulnerability that is often utilised in order to capture the state and/or win support for exclusionary and/or barbaric political parties and policies. Again, I see no reason not to extend this to almost all vulnerabilities. What was Hitler’s vision of a Reich that lasted a thousand years if not a dream of invulerability? Butler is right to suggest that

‘war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other…'[7]

and to identify this with Israel activities in Palestine and its security wall, effectively making it probably the world’s largest gated community.

I am not suggesting that The Invisible Committee is fascist or that it is in any way akin to Israel’s imperialist domination of it’s neighbor. That would be a hysterically overwrought. Instead, I am suggesting only that it is this delusion of invulnerability that The Invisible Committee is held enthralled to. In the case of The Invisible Committee rather than being a symptom of some latent fascism, this delusion is probably a kind of adolescent delusion. In fact, it might be a delusion that is particular to the adolescent male. I can remember being an adolescent and chain smoking happily, drinking stupidly, jumping off and into things, saying things sure to get my a kicking, taking substances I had no idea what they were, even throwing heavy objects into the air to see how much they’d hurt when they hit me on the head! I’m smiling thinking about it (that last one in particular), but we can see the logic at work. Death and serious injury don’t befall the young man; smoking doesn’t lead to cancer, and he could never become one of those alcoholics he derides; he won’t hurt himself, or if he does it’ll be a story; if he’s of a particularly nihilistic or depressive stripe (and I certainly was), he may even glory in his proximity to death and disease. In this ‘theory of a young man’ vulnerability is infinitely deferred as the condition of some other group, or else it is affirmed in a heroic disavowal of its reality.

I would suggest that The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun operate according to just such a “theory of the young man”. The young man withdraws into invisibility and thereby overcomes his vulnerability. His precariousness and precarity are superseded simply by disappearing from the gaze of the state and the diktats of capitalism. It is not the young man who is vulnerable, it is the homeless, the women, and the immigrants; groups who would do better to just keep out of the light, stay quite, and drop-out. I want to make an assumption that is probably unfair: for the young man the homeless should just think of themselves as partaking in the refusal of housing; immigrants should see themselves as refusing the national state; and women should think of themselves as…I’m not sure. On this point, we could remind The Invisible Committee that feminism and women’s struggle are fighting some pretty broad conditions from lower pay to a vast systematic and international trade in their flesh: the sexual market of rape. Drawing attention to this is making oneself too visible (a bad thing) and therefore too vulnerable (another bad thing). I think that it is less unfair to suggest that there is more than a hint of patriarchal attitudes underneath this formula. I am not the first to think that there might be some patriarchal assumptions at work in The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun’s work (cf. Nina Power’s review of Theory of a Young-Girl). And, as China Meiveille’s concept of unseeing brilliantly points out in The City and The City, many people are invisible because they are unseen, because people refuse to see them; including victims of state violence, when it chooses to look away.

In the adolescent delusion of the young man there is something about visibility provoking vulnerability itself. For the Invisible Committee, visibility is tied intimately with recognition. In the same passage as cited above, they continue to sing the praises of anonymity:

To be nothing socially is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition (to be recognized: but by who?), but on the contrary is the precondition for maximum freedom of action.[8]

I don’t want to seem like an uncool, unhip, ultra-theorist or anything, but could you imagine walking up to a trafficked sex worker, a homeless man having to degrade himself further to get into a shelter, or a psychiatric patient being refused basic dignities any other human being takes for granted, that they shouldn’t feel humiliated, that they are in fact free? I’m not suggesting that members of The Invisible Committee would actually do this, they don’t seem like stupid people. I can only put this down to being another symptom of the young man’s delusion. In fairness, they do state that to be “nothing socially” is the “precondition” of freedom rather than constitutive of freedom itself. Still, this is a bit like saying that being raped is the precondition for being sexually liberated. Of course, “to be nothing socially” is a reference to Marx’s early definition of the proletariat as

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. [9]

In a sense then The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun are repeating Marx. Except that Marx doesn’t go so far as to see proletarianised existence as not being one that involves humiliation just because it is also the precondition for freedom. As Marx writes in his “Comments on James Mill”, under the credit system

Mutual dissimulation, hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are carried to extreme lengths, so that on the man without credit is pronounced not only the simple judgment that he is poor, but in addition a pejorative moral judgment that he possesses no trust, no recognition, and therefore is a social pariah, a bad man, and in addition to his privation, the poor man undergoes this humiliation and the humiliating necessity of having to ask the rich man for credit.

Marx recognises that proletarianised existence is a humiliation and that it is humiliating. Even given this, the problem with visibility stands because to be visible is to demand recognition. In “Bloom Theory”, Tiqqun stake out a vision of a society of nihilism and detachment that many of us, in our darker moments, would share. It is also a world in which we are forced to cover-up the nothingness of ourselves through the wearing of masks. These ‘masked nothings’ are the identities each of us assumes; identities such as worker, student, father, citizen and so on. For Tiqqun

Being nothing, remaining outside all recognition, or presenting oneself as a pure, non-political individuality, is enough to make any man at all a being whose disappearance is uninscribable. However inexhaustible the obituary eulogies may be — eternal regrets, etc. — such a death is trivial, indifferent, and only concerns he who disappears; meaning, that is — in keeping with good logic — nobody. Analogous to his entirely private life, Bloom’s death is such a non-event that anybody can eliminate him. That’s why the expostulations of those who, sobs in their voices, lament the fact that Kip Kinkel’s victims “didn’t deserve to die” are inadmissible, because they didn’t deserve to live, either; they were outside the sphere of deservingness. To they extent that they found themselves in the hands of Biopower, they were already the living dead, at the mercy of any sovereign decision-making, whether that of the State or of a murderer.[10]

Here Tiqqun reiterates its agreement with Agameben’s frankly confused reading of the world as a concentration camp and of each one of us as an exemplar of homo sacer, the sacred man who may be sacrificed but who can’t be killed. Sacred Man, also referred to as bare or naked life, is the life that has been fully brought inside of the biopolitical order that constitutes itself as a zone of indistinguishability; always already somewhere between life and death. In such a situation recognition can only ever be the recognition of the sovereign. Thus, preferring to escape such a total subsumption of the corporeal under the sovereign’s power, Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee advocate simply not appearing. All that is left is to withdraw and, as Butler suggests, to play dead.

Visibility, appearing to power, seems to thus be fundamentally about the production of identities that the Blooms of this world must wear; masks that give us the appearance of a stabilised, substantial being but which elide the facts. It is for this reason that earlier in The Bloom Theory, Tiqqun state that all recognition is ‘recognition in and therefore of the spectacle’. Not only are we fully captured by the biopolitical regime but we are also fully immersed within the totally integrated spectacle. To be visible, to appear, is always to be visible within and therefore as the forces of domination, as one fraction of it set against another fraction of it, but fundamentally knowable, containable, and disarmed ahead of time.

This does not accord with the experience of activists or with the confused coverage of recent events. Since Tiqqun wrote these texts, there has been a student movement, a series of riots, the emergence (and yes, waning) of Occupy, a series of occupations, and public parties in the street. No one is suggesting these projects have become a coherent mass revolutionary movement, but they have challenged the picture of a totally invulnerable capitalist order. Instead, we have seen a certain distribution of the sensible challenged. Indeed, if the recent beginnings of a rewakening of the left have been anything then they have been a way of contesting temporalities, spatialities, and therefore also of visibilities. Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee tackle visibility as a unilateral and binary phenomena: either you appear or you disappear; either you enjoy spectacular visibility or you engage in invisibility. We might ask invisibility to whom, and to what? Invisibility at what time? This is to think tactically, and to recognise that any politics is going to involve a certain coordination of visibilities, or the carnal overlapping and interfolding of the visible and the invisible. It seems as though there is a kind of conflation going on between different kinds of visibility and the liberal quest for the recognition of identities. Yet, even among ourselves, those of us who read Tiqqun and might participate in temporary autonomous zones, must recognise one another. If not, then Tiqqun’s is going to be a lonely undertaking.

More interestingly, Paulo Virno discusses withdrawal as an exodus. When asked if he means a simply flight from the city or the factory or whatever location you’re in, he replies

No, I am not referring necessarily to a territorial exodus, but rather to desertion in one’s own place: the collective defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism. Some authors, like Albert Hirschman, affirm that sometimes in protests, the voices don’t manage to reach a change and are then only able to leave the game, run away. For that it is not only necessary to destroy certain things but also to construct, to have a positive proposal, so that exodus will no remain a solitary act.[11]

A desertion in one’s own place. In another interview Virno states that

By exodus was understood as a radical politics that does not want to construct a new state. In the end, it is only that and, then, is far from the model of the revolutions that want to take power, to construct a new state, a new monopoly of political decision; to the contrary, it is – in every case – to defend power, not to take power and, also the things that you said yesterday when you were speaking on the university – of the richness of relations – this positivity of experience as something that later deserves to be defended but that, in the meantime, should be [seen as] something already constructed in terms of sociability, productive relations, knowledges, networks of our part. [12]

So this desertion in one’s own place is a political desertion; a desertion of the political politics of those revolutionaries that seek to capture the state apparatus but, in its notable absence, this also implies that it is not the anti-politics of those who would seek to smash the state. There is also a sense in which, as it refers not to a taking leave of a space, a particular form of nomadism in which one does not have a place to take leave of except one’s own; and one’s own space is always the spatiality of the body.

Franco Berardi also speaks in this language when he states that he wants

To call forth a big wave of withdrawal, of massive dissociation, of desertion from the scene of the economy, of nonparticipation in the fake show of politics.[13]

Steven Hickman notes that these positions are all idealist. Yet it isn’t just that they are idealist it is also that it is a language a language of retreat. Even if we agree that the state isn’t what we want to win, is our imagination so impoverished that the state is the only way that we could think about taking power? Even the idea of living in the cracks isn’t as easy it was when Hakim Bey wrote the first treatment of disappearing. As Simon Critchley has discussed we need to produce the interstices that we can then occupy:

politics is the praxis of taking up distance with regard to the state…an internal distance that must be opened from the inside…[because] there is no distance within the state. [14]

I think that this is a worthwhile strategy if they it isn’t meant to be a withdrawals but an opening, a very visible opening, that tend to the creation of new publics. This is essentially what Occupy was, for a time, in its contesting of the distribution of the sensible and the coming together of bodies; they were also, temporary and partial no doubt, cleavages in the temporality of production- a kind of political economic strike. That thought, the thought of a combined political economic moment, is leading me to look at the traditions of council communism and anarchosyndicalism in more depth. These are traditions that emerge within and against the state as openings in the place where one already is: at work. Of course today, work time is all time, so the question would be whether or not something like councils and revolutionary unions could be established in places, until post-Fordist recomposition, were not considered workplaces. If all time is work time, and all places are work places then why not a mother’s union? why not a service worker’s council? why not a homeless union? As long as these unions are taken up as spaces within and against the state. The strength of these two neglected traditions is that they are a kind of desertion in one’s own place; they both support strikes (as either general or mass strikes) and neither of them involve a throwing off of the vast material ‘worldwide distribution systems of goods and services networks’. Instead they call for the self-management of these material networks in order to re-craft our relationship to production and to one another in a way that acknowledge the necessity of forms of visibility and seeks to find strength in the affirmation of our vulnerability.

[1] Hakim Bey. The temporary autonomous zone: the will to power as disappearance. Here.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Here. p.49.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: the powers of mourning and violence. p.42.
[6] Judith Butler. Frames of War. p.47.
[7] Ibid. p.43.
[8] Op. cit. The Invisible Committee.
[9]. Karl Marx. 1844. Comments on James Mill: Éléments D’économie Politique. Here.
[10] Tiqqun. Bloom Theory. Homo Sacer/Sacred Man. Here.
[11] Paulo Virno. Between disobedience and exodus. Here.
[13] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. Political therapy. Here.
[14]. Simon Critchley. Infinitely demanding: ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. [hardback] p.113.

Chomsky’s realist anarchism

So I one of those who watched the Foucault-Chomsky debates as a young undergrad and relished the Frenchman poking fun at Chomsky. I dislike Chomsky’s notion that we can ‘speak truth to power’ and his insistence to keep doing so, and keep being ignored, for Foucaultian reasons. But is it, at the moment, time to take someone like Chomsky a lot more seriously. I’m sure a lot of people already have been…but still.

So Chomsky’s linguistics are bunk. Some would tell us that it follows from this that his entire thought fails because of it…but does his socialism really rely on his work in cognitive science? If we don’t ground socialism in human nature like Chomsky does, then does it even matter that he does?

Chomsky seems to piss off a lot of anarchists because he seems willing to engage in the real world rather than think that one can jump out of one historical situation to the next without the necessary conditions and (and as another anarchist-cum-anarchist hate figure, Murray Bookchin, put it) pre-conditions. Of course part of what Chomsky (and Bookchin) both declare is that we live in a post-scarcity society, that capitalism succeeds in producing massive wealth (so much so we have to let so much food go to rot) but that it then keeps it in the hands of a few rather than distributing it to all. Perhaps for a lot of contemporary anarchists driven primarily by ethical concerns this is to political a reason (justice isn’t as immediate as “be nice”) and for others his views don’t seem necessarily complicated enough (he doesn’t speak in the correct intellectual dialect). But are these kinds of simple positions deceptively simple?

And here, given everything that is being discussed groups like Platypus and so on, is Murray Bookchin answer about whether the left is (was) dead. I enjoy the fact that Bookchin gives a clear articulation, along with many others, that communism is an idea, and a movement, that can’t be identified with the Soviet Union. I can’t help but wonder whether the current intellectual left has “rediscovered” or “reinvented” something a lot of people never forgot or threw away.

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.

Communism in recovery

In spite of the association of violence with political will, however, I would argue, as did Arendt, that the new glorification of violence of the late 1960s was caused by a severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it expressed an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, violence both expressed the rage of helplessness and helped suppress such feelings of helplessness. It became an act of self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. -Moishe Postone, History and helplessness: mass mobilisation and contemporary forms of anticapitalism.

As a psychiatric worker this absolutely appeals to me intuitively and theoretically. The violence in the riots of 2011 and the violence that is fetishised by certain left factions are born out of helplessness. Indeed, one could see the current historical moment, the movement of the left from its position of despair to optimism is also analogous to the psychiatric patient dragging themselves out of a kind of learned helplessness. The rejection of electoral politics by the majority of people could be seen as a symptom of learned helplessness: do they refuse to vote because they don’t care, or because “it won’t make any difference”; whenever you hear someone saying that they wish that there could be a world without classes, without a state, without injustice, without violence against women and so but that can never be because “that’s just the way things are” they are also talking the language of learned helplessness. In a similar respect, I wonder if the Zizekian call for a Master is a symptom of such learned helpness (the need for a savior; an externalisation of the locus of agency), or if it is instead a return to being able to think in terms of heroism, and therefore evidence of a recovery of agency and imagination?

In the 1960 and 1970, American psychologist EP Seligman was carrying out research on dogs to investigate the phenomena of classical condition (Pavlov’s dogs; the formation of an association between a stimulus and a resultant that influences behaviour). In the course of his research Seligman noticed that those dogs that received unavoidable electric shocks would fail to take evasive action in situations where avoidance-escape behaviour would have removed them from an aversive stimulus. The control animals, those dogs that did not receive such electric shocks, were able to flee the threatening situation with no difficulty. Repeating the experiment with human participants (and noise rather than electricity), Seligman found his dog results were reproduced. Seligman proposed that there was a structure of expectation that expected the uncontrollability of outcomes through intervention, and therefore the belief that intervention and action would be futile. He named this expectational-behavioural feedback loop learned helplessness. Essentially, repeated failed attempts to perturb a situation and produce a change inculcate in the attempters that it is pointless to even really try. Isn’t this the structure of the experience of the left?

Since assembling the idea, learned helplessness has become positively viral, being applied to pretty much all psychiatric conditions, to prison populations, to older people in care homes and so on. The authors of the website You are not so smart have even extended the application of the theory of learned helplessness to everyday life:

Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.

This is the social psychology of capitalism. I have seen this first hand in patients of long-stay psychiatric wards and I have lived it during a period of long term unemployment (studies of both of which in relation to learned helplessness have proliferated since Seligman’s day). Isn’t this also the economy of the false choice that infects every aspect of contemporary life (coke/pepsi etc.)? You get to choose, but just enough to make sure you don’t make a real choice. This is precisely the trap that has broken apart and out of which the anti-cuts protests and the anti-Austerity movements have sprung. For Seligman, learned helplessness was to be understood as a form of depression, but it is clear that this has been a depression of what Franco Berardi calls “the social brain”. It is not that you or I have been depressed, although we might very well have been, but that we have all been subjected to depressive processes of subjectivation; the entire field of the production of subjectivity has been depressed. In discussin such a depression I want to make it clear that I reject the false dichotomy that presents itself as a political antagonism. On the one hand, depression is often portrayed a neurochemical condition, a “brain disease”. I argue that even when it is not theorised in this way the casual pharmacological treatment of it as such displays a kind of political faith (in a phrase designed to modify Santayana’s “animal faith”) that it is. The first half of Steven Soderbergh’s last film, Side Effects, does a wonderful job of exploring this faith and the complex relationship of psychiatry, the pharmaceutical industry, professional patients (people who have the knowledge about this brain disorder and the “fact” that prozac will make it better), family, and capitalism- and its affects- before losing its way. On the other side of this debate is the position that says depression is a social and political problem. The latter position is passionately argued by Mark Fisher in his excellent Capitalist Realism and in a good deal of interviews. I support Fisher’s calls for a politicisation of depression and, following psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, I would also claim that diagnoseslike “depression” often serve to produce markets for psychiatric drugs and

allows the state to delegate a difficult area of social policy to supposed technical experts, and thus to remove it from the political and democratic arena. (Here).

I agree with this critique but I do think it is important to realise that neurobiology does play a demonstrable role in depression. There does seem to be a distinction to be made between biological dysphorias and situational dysphorias, and there is a job to be done to disentangle these phenomena from one another in specific cases. At the least, medication can and does have a role to play in the treatment of severe cases of clinical depression regardless of whether or not they are over-prescribed (the overprescription of morphine would not detract from its observable and subjectively reported ability to alleviate symptoms). Medications and other treatments should be viewed as tools rather than as totems to be revered or destroyed. Spend some time with someone who is so depressed that they are refusing to eat, to move, or to do anything but sleep. Now watch them in that state for months on end. It is unlikely that they would be capable of joining in any effort to politicise depression or to express it as what it often, but not always, is: political rage that has learned to view the situation of expressing itself as hopeless.

My general point is that it is just as ludicrous to reduce the problem of depression to the social field just as much as it reduce it to the neurochemical. The brain and the social field are not distinct from one another in some absolute way but are part of a circularity that operates via the body as korper and as leib. I don’t think Mark Fisher believes that the body and the social world are fundamentally distinct in this way, so it is strange that he should treat neurochemical and the social field in this way. If it is carried out for tactical reasons in a polemic against psychiatry, then I can’t follow him in that work. Psychiatry is neither monolithic in theory, disciplinary composition, or practices. As someone on the “inside” as it were, and with a history of close relationships with people who have undergone treatment, and having been assessed myself for panic in my adolescence (doctor: “you’re a student of philosophy? well, don’t worry…it;s not an existential crisis!” chuckle chuckle, indeed) I am aware of the problems. I have spent most of my training to enter the profession being critical of it and am a member of the Soteria Network, which offers a candidate model for a new psychiatry. The embodiment of mental disorders is striking- and is something I am writing about. The embodiment of depression is especially striking: the is an abandonment of voluntary motility-mobility, the alteration of gait (which at least one physiotherapeutic study suggests can be something that is treated with positive results), which psychiatric researchers Fuchs and Schlimme see as a result of a process whereby

the body loses the fluidity and transparency of a medium and becomes conspicuous, turning into a heavy, solid body, which puts up resistance to the individual’s intentions and impulses. (Here)

The depressive body is the body that is all korper and not enough lieb; in refusing to recede into the background it makes itself too evident and doesn’t allow for the enaction of world through meaningful comportment; it remains an heavy obstacle that must be taken into account in such a way that “intuitive attunement” to affordances in the environment through sensorimotor intentionality fails. As Fuchs and Schlimme further argue

The open horizon of possible experiences shrinks into a locked atmosphere, in which everything becomes permeated by a sense of lost possibilities.

The depressive subjectivation processes are once that operate on bodies in order to produce bodies that are exhausted and, as Deleuze put it, ‘the exhausted don’t possibilitate’. Depression is not the mood of the melancholic that introjects some lost object in order to angst over it, but it is the very real loss of the capacity of affection and to experience a world. At its excessive side, depression can take on a psychotic edge that indulges in mood-congruent delusions such as Cotard’s disorder or those of excessive guilt, the sense that one has committed some terrible crime and must/will be punished for it.

Returning to Fisher, I absolutely agree with him on the question of the ‘affective consequences of the kind of cyberspace-matrix that the yound especially are embedded in’ (Here). This is why I think that the rejection of Paul Virilio has been far too fast and that e has, at least in part (and I’d say in the useful part) been mischaracterised.

I don’t know what Virilio’s relationship to Althusser might be, but he can certainly be positioned among the post-Althusserians. It is possible to think of Virilio as a profoundly reactionary thinker- he does himself no favours here, we might attribute it to a combination of his Catholicism and his agora-phobia (his fear of the public)- yet he is not exactly alien or hostile to Marxian thinking. First of all, Virilio is consistently traced back to Benjamin; if there is any thinker that Virilio is claimed to be a disciple of it is Benjamin, with all his fragmentary thinking, his love of discontinuity and his catastrophic thinking. For my own part, it is resolutely the catastrophic thought that I am attracted to- obviously this is relatable to what I call catastrophia.

In Virilio there are a few elements worth considering: speed, information overload, “the democracy of emotions” (massification-synchronisation and the destruction of the time of deliberation”, which taken together form what I call “acceleration“. At the same time there is also his denunciation of the myth of progress, and the idea of the accident. These two elements can be called Virilio’s “catastrophism”. Taken together these two interactive moments form part of the thought of Franco Berardi and Bernard Stiegler, although it is a moment that both of these thinkers either underplay or ignore and which we don’t see many treatments of. This is undoubtedly due to Virilio’s reactionary comments but, much more likely, also his designation as a postmodernist. Heidegger’s Nazism is more deserving of forgivenness than is Virilio’s percieved sin of postmodernism, and Zizek’s adoration of Christology and the whole turn to St. Paul is worth more attention than a man who genuinely has faith. At any rate, Virilio’s alleged postmodernism is as false an allegation as is that against Marx that thinks he figures the social revolution as the end of history. In Virilio’s own words:

I believe that technical modernity, modernity taken as the outcome of technical inventions over the past two centuries, can only be stopped by an integral ecological accident, which, in a certain way, I am forecasting. Each and every invention of a technical object has also been the innovation of a particular accident. From the sum total of the technosciences does arise, and will arise a „generalized accident”. And this will be modernism’s end. (John Armitage (Ed.), Paul Virilio:from modernism to hypermodernism and beyond, Sage, 2000, p. 26)

So, only an ecological accident that is a generalised accident- here I think Virilio is talking about something like ecological collapse brought on by industrial processes that is yet to occur, but nonetheless is certainly with as a latent possibility (or if you prefer sf speculations, the nanotech paranoia surronding cancerous “grey goo”)- only this endangering of the world itself will end modernity; a planetary accident, climatological-geological, something involving extinctions. This is a dark vision, although it escapes pessimism because it is atemporal; this is a possibility right now (“does arise” and “will arise”; the future is already here). The relation of modernity to this technical modernity is interesting because Virilio is often taken as a techno-determinist, although he denies this. At any rate, or rather at full speed, for Virilio modernity as technical modernity- modernity as the ability of our hominid species to intervene technologically “for technical intervention’s sake” in its factical conditions- is far from over (shale gas drilling and the 3D printer are the latest forms of this obsessive thrust). Indeed, Virilio appears as a kind of technomoralist in the sense Ballard gave to this position; standing at the blind curve on the clifftop road with the sign reading “for god sake slow down”.

In Virilio’s hands the one form of the ‘absent causality’ that capitalism denies is the body. This actually places him closer to feminism than most of the post-Althusserians. Specifically, it puts him in proximity to the feminist theory of Silvia Federici. In Federici’s Caliban and the witch, the central claim is that the original version of primitive accumulation- the first violent expropriation- was that of the enclosure of the female body (for Federici historical accusations that feminism is a “splitter” movement or sectarian faction misses the point that capitalism is capitalist-patriarchy— this is another good reason to criticise the blindness of the SWPs central committee and Alex Callinicos). This is not the full story though. For Virilio the absent causality is also the dark side of technology. In Virilio’s eyes capitalism must always make technology as a system appear as if it was always a neutral development, when it is actually one that has catastrophic structurally integral consequences. This is the meaning of the oft-quoted phrase that the invention of the train is also the invention of the train crash and this is what Virilio terms “accident” (it is also why, back in 2008-2009, Virilio spoke of the financial collapse as “an accident”).

In a fairly crap interview with hipster central magazine Vice magazine, we find this exchange

Q.Do you mean “accident” in the same way that some say “event” in modern-day philosophy?

PV: Yes, except that for me, an accident is the event of speed. Our accidents are linked to the acceleration of history and of reality. The French were occupied by the Nazis by surprise. They didn’t react well because they didn’t understand the speed of it all. They were taken by speed. Today’s events, like the stock-market crash, are speed accidents. I call these “integral accidents” because they trigger other accidents. There is an amplification of pure events in history. Today, history is entirely accidental. Look at 9/11. It’s not an event, it’s an accident. But we consider it to be as important as yesterday’s events. It’s like a declaration of war without a war.

The outside that Virilio wants to highlight as being folded into the interiority of capitalism is the integral accident. At the same time, in this interview, we also see Virilio anticipating Timothy Morton on the burial of plutonium:

‘Imagine placing nuclear waste in a hole. How do you tell people in 200,000 years that there are dangerous substances there? It’s not science fiction anymore. How do you communicate with those people? What language will they speak? The length of the threat isn’t considered here. And it’s the same for stocking nuclear weapons. They are everywhere.)

What we see then is that in Virilio’s “accidentology”, his phenomenology of the accident, that there is precisely a diagnosis of times when ‘the structure internally cannot control its own excesses’. (Bruno Bosteels, Here).

Elsewhere Virilio speak of the need for a ‘a university founded on the disaster we’re discussing, the progress that turns to catastrophe…’ and isn’t this precisely a call for a place of thought for thinking capitalism? For Zizek, the problem is that Virilio remains a figure of

the conservative-leftist Kulturkritik (from Adorno to Virilio), which bemoans the stupidity of the manipulated masses, and the eclipse of the autonomous individual capable of critical reflection. (Here).

This is a quick rejection, with Adorno and Virilio serving as a kind of abecedarian gesture at a multiplicity of sad and, the implication is, elitist theorists. Yet if revolutionary theory is going to speak to anybody, if it is to be made applicable to people’s concerns, if it is to address itself to and allow itself to be heard by the workers then it Virilio offers a language and terrain that is familiar to so many people simply because they actually live it!

Virilio also gives a language and a function to the point of a vanguard- an intellectual vanguard that may or may not be instantiated as a party (I am making no a priori judgements in these notes): to offer a different temporality, to be able to slow down, to take time, to look things over, to understand rather than react. To continue the language of my previous post, the vanguard operates on the physiology of revolution via the activation of the conscious control on the spontaneity of the autonomic system (in Virilio’s analyses of panic, we can continue this language to speak of an overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system…indeed, at this level of analysis this language ceases to be metaphorical).

In this way Virilio isn’t at all ‘bemoan[ing] the stupidity of the manipulated masses’- it is technology that is doing the manipulation, or rather it is the user-technology relationship itself and so it is a kind of auto-manipulation, and so the insinuation that they have been foolishly tricked by some media elite is off the cards. Rather, it is that Virilio is arguing against the various forms of techno-mediatic spontaneity that appeal to the creative impulses of the working classes. Indeed, the way that capitalism subsumes the cognitive-affective capacities of the species (whatever the hell the “general intellect” is) is what Virilio discusses under the term “endocolonisation”.

As to the eclipse of the autonomous individual; actually, Virilio is critical of a what he sees a tendency towards a cocooning of the body inside of a technological shell and of a panic-stricken siege mentality that imprisons the sensuous body behind a thousand screens, with forced feedback technology displacing the erotic sensualities of masturbation and sex. This is the vision painting in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The possibility of an island and it is actually a vision of the apotheosis of the autonomous individual.

In each instance of analysis Virilio is looking at this particular situation and looking for an element that has been excluded at the level capitalist discourse but which is, nonetheless, very much an operational presence, ready to reveal itself at any moment. In this regard, Virilio isn’t so much a pessimist in the philosophic sense as he is a hyper-pessimist in Foucault’s sense, insisting not that x,y or z are good or bad but that they are dangerous.

In other words, Virilio is looking at what can be used with an awareness of the risks, and he is trying to think outside of the temporality of the present in order to properly think that present. In seeking to think the accident, to critique the pseudo-liberations of postmodernism, and to find a time for deliberative thinking that manages to detach itself from the “communism of affects” (spontaneity), Virilio is being far more Leninist than Zizek is willing to tolerate.

The real problem with Virilio as a philosopher is that he remains caught up in human exceptionalism. This is, of course, dictated by his Christianity (his “anarcho-Christianity”, as he puts it in an interview with John Armitage, and links it to anarcho-syndalicalism). Yet for all that, he is one of those thinkers who early on included an analysis of a dimension of nonhuman materiality in the shape of technology and technological objects, and, for those of us dedicated to therapeutics and politics, a degree of pragmatic humanism is essential.

In his analysis of speed and communicative technologies, Virilio is also performing an analysis of the processes that produce the depression of the social field that has produced the learned helplessness of the left (and of the workers in general) and that has compounded clinical depression in individuals. As acceleration accelerates, we get more and more sedentary, more and more (inter)passive and domesticated. The point of this side-step through Virilio hasn’t been to mount a defense or championing of his bleak vision but to note that there is a well established approach to understanding this new mediatic environment that understanding it as explicitly linked to capitalism. The task then, and this is a process already under way, but which needs to be better understood and directed, is to unlearn helplessness and thereby lift hopelessness. It might also be to engage with the new logic of the youth born fully integrated into a post-internet media landscape. This is beginning to happen but it is an unsteady course and there is always the possibility of relapse.

Mark Fisher has made calls recently to hear the end of the left’s Beckettian mantra “fail again, fail better” in favour of a kind of renewed heroism that dared to think it could win. For myself, I think that this means the embrace of a kind of communist pragmatism that is capable of recognising that as hominids adrift in the world we are a being permanently trying to cope. The question then is what allows us to cope? The Leninist question of what is to be done, to repeat myself, becomes the question “what can be done” and, to borrow from the solution-focussed therapies, we can begin by asking “what has worked for us before?” This orientation is my own reason for backing Left Unity and for keeping in contact with anarchist groups as well as keeping abreast of socialists that one wouldn’t consider radical or necessarily communist. It is born out a desire to be faithful to this moment of reinvigoration and confidence. This calls for a strategy of tactical openness, of a willingness to be truly experimental and to not foreclose possibilities while they are flourishing and while they can be made use of and put to work for a better way of coping with being alive. Therapy might well be the opium of people in the hands of the capitalists, but what would a political therapeutics look like that sought to enable resistance to capitalism? If the left is in recovery after a period of depression then let us look bear in mind what Franco Berardi that

When dealing with a depression the problem is not to bring the depressed person back to his/her normality, to reintegrate behavior in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal is to change the focus of his/her depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the flow of expression. Depression is based on the stiffening of existential refrain, on the obsessive repetition of the stiffened refrain. The depressed person is unable to go out, to leave the repetitive refrain and s/he goes and goes again in the labyrinth. The goal of the schizoanalyst is to give him/her the possibility to see other landscapes, and to change the focus, to open some new ways of imagination. I see a similarity between this schizoanalytic wisdom and the Kuhnian concept of paradigmatic shift when the scientific knowledge is taken inside a conundrum.(Here)

The left should not be seeking to return to its old forms or to abandon its new ones. I seek to begin with the determination of what is in our power and what is not, and acting based on that diagnosis increasing what calls under our agency and enflaming the potency of our efficacy. To speak in plain language: its by thinking and by doing what we can that we can risk building ourselves as a united front and produce a left wing movement that can defend and, why not?, even attack capitalism. But to do this, we can’t just go back to how we were, with our old refrains that we got stuck in; we can’t be statists and antistatists, anarchists and Leninists and so on. For now, at least for a little while, we should risk a degree of wilful naivety in the hope that through experimenting we might make something new. I myself am no hero, and don’t seek to be one; these comments reflect only an attempt to grapple with the situation we find ourselves in. Yet perhaps this aversion to heroism has been part of the problem…

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.

A short note on politics, or communism.

Why call ourselves communist? The more a lexical item means, the more likely it is to be put into
hard labour by the ruling order. Like “freedom”, “autonomy”, “human” and a host of others, the word communism has been twisted, turned upside down, and is now currently a synonym of life under a benevolent/dictatorial
totalitarian State. Only a free, autonomous, human, communist awakening will make these words meaningful again.- Gilles Duave. 1997. The Eclipse and reemergence of the communist movement.

If you want to know something truly despairing, a friend of mine today told me that protest and political involvement is a hobby. “Today, it’s become a hobby”. Not a duty, responsibility, or self-interested self-defence… a hobby. A fucking hobby? Sometimes I wonder about my friends. I can’t imagine a more post-political statement. But then, I remember that poster by some post-spectacle Deterritorial Support Group that announced “the post-political is the most political”; its an interesting subversion, if subversion is something we can still say exists. perhaps its better to say its an interesting reversal. What happens when you reverse the relationship of the political to the image of its own obliteration as one more lifestyle choice, one more commodity or brand to be picked up? It gains a kind of mobility? A slipperiness that is frustrating because on the one hand it refuses to openly commit itself, shows itself as ignorant of its own place in things (you might not be interested in power, but power is interested in you), and its enmeshment in the ideological bullshit of the age; on the other hand, it complicates open commitment, shows the facile nature of the names and options on offer (if this is your politics, I- as a young consumer[he is 22 i think]- ain’t buying), points to the difficulty of finding any stable positions or locations, and finally embraces the nihilistic rejection of transcendental signifiers. It is depressing because it is a good analysis of the situation, a better analysis than that given by many a Laurie Penny or an Owen Jones, because it is completely unburdened of theoretical attachments and conscious ideological affiliations. Politics is a hobby, and one my friend isn’t very interested in.

There is a section in Bifo’s The Uprising (which I’m going to try to do a careful reading of), in which he discusses his generation, the generation of May 68, as “the last modern generation” and, as I’m sure you know, this means for him the last generation tied to the promises, indeed to temporality of the promise itself, implied by a conception of “the future”. We are post-futurist (I go further, claiming we are post-nihilist…or at least, I take nihilism as the starting point of thinking). He means by this that there is no future, it is here now, immanentised in every moment, this is the future that we were promised. A promise- if you ask me- can only be a promise if it is never tested, if it is never broken, and this is the matter of the romance with the future, a love affair with futurity, with the temporality of the future as radically other than the present. There are other names for this phenomena, the most obvious is revolution. Revolution conceived of as the emergence of an Event that disturbs the historical situation- the count-in-one- so fundamentally as to cleave it’s unity into a Two, a before and an after, a situation and its excess, a synaptic junction and post-synaptic junction in the brain of history. All this is done with in Bifo, as in so many others. The romance is finished with; the promise is broken; the lovers fall away from one another…its over. Of course, for the last generation of moderns, the last believers in progress and the cunning of reason, the last of the faithful flock who worshiped at the altar of Communism defined as a transcendent signifier (today reduced to Badiou’s ludicrous ahistorical hypothesis), where also, to say the same thing again, the last believers in the myth of progress. If there is something that counts in people like Bifo, in object-oriented philosophy, and in the fiction of speculative realism (a movement without members, it seems) then it is this: Hegel, finally, is dead. Those who mourn him are precisely those who said that the London-Manchester riots of 2011 were “not political”. Well, the post-political is the most political.

Sure, nothing came of it. Rage was vented, desire exploded, excess ran amok. But what about organisation? There was no sign of it. This is why I thought at the time that it is firstly rage- or the passions as such- that needs to be organised. Who should do this work of organisation? Certainly not the pharma-therapeutic agencies that I- against my own better nature- am about to work in. For myself, I am interested in the Stoics who attempt not attain mastery over the passions by suppressing or repressing them, but by accepting them and asking whether or not I should assent to them? I don’t know if this has political application, but it means I am not consumed by rage all day long, and this has to be helpful for actually achieving things. This is besides the point though. Why did Zizek, Badiou, and Baumann (whose analysis was doubtlessly the best) consider the riots to be apolitical? I would suggest because they didn’t flourish into organised forms, they didn’t fall easily into a narrative of democratic socialist organisation, of anarchist consensus building, of Bolshevik progress; they didn’t address, enact, or even bother gesturing towards any kind of future.

I think for Bifo, the melancholy of the contemporary left, and our inability to think new forms but our unflagging obsession with novelty, is historico-generational. There is a generation who overdetermine political discourse, who operate based on a world that is gone, that is finished…….the world before the end of the future and the objective realisation of nihilism. Their narratives can’t be our narratives- although whether we are a fault line generation, rather than a thoroughly post-futurist one, is an open question. I don’t want to say these things to encourage polemic and partisanship based on age or on historical experience of Events (what Event do we have to hold fidelity to? What is our May ’68 if not 2011?) The logic of promises is no longer operational. We are in the present, fully in the present. That is all we have now. And if our generation and those that come after us are also marked by an apocalyptic imagination, and a catastrophic science (ecological collapse; rogue planets; comets; pandemics; solar catastrophe; heat-death of the universe) then let us say that there is no jumping out of the present, because the future is finished in advance.

The online etymology dictionary says that a promise is a ‘declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done’ . We are in a defensive position, attempting to protect a past that is being unwritten, obliterated, taken from us (the nhs, the welfare state, the meanings of the very terms of engagement). What comes next? What comes after the future? Part of working this out might involve patience. We have only the present. It is a moment that won’t end. In this regard maybe Zizek’s insistence is correct; the point isn’t to do something (anything) but to think better, to work it out, to be painstaking. To produce “perspicuous representations”. To come to terms with the situation from within the situation. This is little more than a repetition of Marx, really, an insistence on the primacy of praxis as reflective practice. If there are such things as duties and responsibilities today, they aren’t the same one’s of the old politics or of the inanity of repetitive calls for a new politics. I don’t know if what I’m saying is stupid or desperate or what… but I’m interested in the real, in the real of the situation, I don’t care about Lenin’s question “what is to be done?”, I’m interested in the pragmatic question “what can be done?”- defence movements, protest, riot, insurrection, voting, the development of a political party or a platform (one that doesn’t just repeat Bolshevism, sure…but maybe let’s not have people infected with Bolshevic experience attempting to dictate the terms of our departure from it?), the intervention of cultural modes of disruption? I’m for democracy not understood as a form but as a practice of disruption, infinite disruption, reclamation, reinvention. Maybe this sounds empty and far away from actual on the ground practice- after all, I’m not an activist, its easy to make pronouncements from my Ivory Tower (i know you wouldn’t say I was speaking from such a place, but there are those who would, simply because I’m not covered in blood and guts of policemen and bureaucrats)- but the point is a call for a return to all that. I’m getting fond of repeating the question “what can be done?”, of the pragmatic orientation, but a pragmatism that is not value-free, that is not “what works” in the sense of a neoliberal de-and-re-regulation of social practices in the name of capital…. but a what works to undermind, to rebuild, to reappropriate and misappropriate (Mark Fisher’s idea of a leftist Daily Mail is intriguing on that point) what is ours, was ours, was never ours.

If we stand in the ruins, what can we fashion from those ruins?

Or maybe that’s more of the same pessimism that gets people no where; except that pessimism, to be pessimism proper, has to have a future. Pessimism is the myth of progress on its perverse side, its negativity that is not its negation: pessimism says “things can only get worse”, “there is no worst”, we go down and down forever, spiralling.

Both historical optimism and philosophical pessimism are a priori theoretical attitudes that are intoxicated with futurity, with the possibility of a future, of “another world”. Fuck another world; neoliberalism is so successful because it understands how to recompose this world, so our job should be the same… to fight over the composition of this world.

. Ironically, given the Nietzschean fervor of so many iconoclasts, critique relies on a rear world of the beyond,
that is, on a transcendence that is no less transcendent for being fully secular. With critique, you may debunk, reveal, unveil, but only as long as you establish, through this process of creative destruction, a privileged
access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances. Critique, in other words, has all the limits of utopia: it relies on the certainty of the world beyond this world. By contrast, for compositionism, there is no
world of beyond. It is all about immanence.

I don’t quote Bruno Latour to nail my flag to his, to his name, to the name compositionism or to any other name. I don’t want to be evasive or to refuse identifications on principle, I do not lack the security to state my beliefs but I begin to lack the need to secure them within fixed ideological (read: futural) terminologies, ones that refer to exhausted, toothless utopias that in the words of Deleuze “no longer possibilitate”. I am beginning to believe we have to be tactical, mobile, to follow specific fault-lines in a situation, to respond to specific calls, to retain a willingness to maintain an immanence.

In terms of organisation, I am becoming more in favour of what you might call “plastic party“, where the party is understood as plastic in the sense of plasticity derived from neurology and the plastic arts (including body modification like Genesis P-Orrige’s, although without the religiously tinged inability to mourn that comes with his singularity). This would be a party responsive to changes in its environment; one that altered its own structure on the basis of necessity; it would be a party that was not invested in self-reproduction or self-dissolution, but one which would function functionally. It is a party of empiricism rather than of ideology or partisanship:

We have to transform the field of social institutions into a vast experimental field, in such a
way as to decide which taps need turning, which bolts need to be loosened here or there, to get
the desired change. … What we have to do … is to increase the experiments wherever possible in this particularly interesting and important area of social life (Foucault 1988).

I think maybe we need to start thinking of new leftist heros, and new narratives that aren’t saturated by guilt and failure. A new left heroism? Could we stomach it?

The immanent present is a field of experimentation. Being an experimenter means rejecting the idea that hypotheses can be rejected before being tested. We can see in Foucault’s suggestion a kind of anarchist attitude to taking power. I think Foucault’s slipperiness amounts to this: he is an anarchist that doesn’t believe in anarchism, a pragmatist who is to wedded to the left to be a pragmatist, a nihilist who sees nihilism as emancipatory rather than mournful. I like Foucault’s orientation, and I would call myself a Foucauldian if that identification made any kind of sense (it doesn’t, it can’t, it’s moves too quickly, circulates endlessly in a problematic, unconcerned with finding final solutions). When he speaks of critique he speaks of it as the art of not being governed or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost’. The eye is to the detail, to the specifics, to the singularity of each situation. It is also not a rejection of power, of parties, of government… is a rejection of that kind of government that demands you pay that price. Foucault again,

I was not referring to something that would be a fundamental anarchism, that would be like an originary freedom (qui serait comme la liberté originaire), absolutely and wholeheartedly (absolument et en son fond) resistant to any governmentalization. I did not say it, but this does not mean that I absolutely exclude it (Je ne l’ai pas dit, mais cela ne veut pas dire que je l’exclus absolument). I think that my presentation stops at this point, because it was already too long, but also because I am wondering (mais aussi parce que je me demande)…if one wants to explore this dimension of critique that seems to me to be so important because it is both part of, and not part of, philosophy…it is supported by something akin (qui serait ou) to the historical practice of revolt, the non-acceptance of a real government, on one hand, or, on the other, the individual refusal of governmentality.”(What is critique?) [all my emphases].

Things are put forward and retracked, things are said only in order to not be said, things are offered and not given, put into circulation and arrested, gestures are gestural and do not attain the standing of genuine communications. Anarchism is named but as something that goes too far, because it is to inside or outside of philosophy, and because it’s “originary freedom”- the freedom of a body that exists in isolation to the paradoxical operation of power-knowledge, that is not subjected to governmentality, that does not find itself circulating-circulated within a market of labour-power and value production- would be a body that was impossible. A body like that would be an organism. Man is not the political animal because animals don’t engage in politics. I don’t want to suggest we’re not organisms, that we’re not animals, hominids, apes, but rather that our relationship to our own animality is complex (anxiety and mortality salience are evidence enough). Foucault’s relationship to anarchism seems the same as so much of the contemporary communist left that avows elements of its critique and its potency without naming it, but naming it as the moment that goes too far. I think fundamentally Foucault might also agree with the Zizekian criticism of the anarchists; that they do not take responsibility for power, for its exercise, for it traversing them. Just so, for Foucault the job of the homosexual wasn’t to abandon sexuality, to abandon mores, the regulation of desires and pleasures, the field of the relation, but to complicate it, to question it, to draw it up anew, to take responsibility for it.

The left- the communist left if we want to risk making an identification- is itself in need of recomposition, of transforming itself. This means looking at the rubble and sifting through it; it means no more ideologically motivated answers on subjects like the party, the unions, the affinity group, elections, parliaments. We make use of what we can make use of, and operating tactically might mean that- from the outside- we appear to take up contradictory strategies. Importantly, if we want to get out of a defensive position, if we want to build a position from which to attack or to “go on the offensive”, we must first build bases, supports, hubs of plastic stability.

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.

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 🙂