Wednesday 2 March 2016

Tomislav Terek – In the Awake World – Fragments 1995-2015

The first time I met Tomislav he was running a stall in the Brick Lane Sunday market stocked full of Balkan gypsy music and art and political theory books. Instantly I could sense that this was no ordinary marketplace operation – and that it posed a grave danger to attempts to limit my budget for acquiring new books and music. Who was this strange man and how had he managed to bring together such a combination of ideas, arts, and cultures into the format of a market stall? And what was he trying to accomplish, since despite the alleged love of hipsters and the creative class for all that is new, unique, or exotic, it hardly seemed that the artistic workers of the Brick Lane market were making off with anything like a livable amount of sales?

Immediately I could tell that Tomislav’s practice was much more about hawking ideas, histories, myths, and stories – woven fragments in a world that seemed yet to awake – more so then anything close to a typical commercial operation. He dressed in a tan vest, much like the one that Joseph Beuys wore, emblazoned with the German phrase for “Joseph Beuys is overrated” – in much the way that Beuys used the phrase “the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.” What was this? A joke? Satire? A layering of references and histories to be discovered if you want to do the digging? A tribute to artists such as Beuys and Duchamp? As I learned over time and conversation with Tomislav the answer could only be yes, to all of those possibilities, and at the same time. Tomislav had taken up and inverted Beuys-Duchamp’s silences for his own purposes, building his own mythologies and practices, such as in his Beuys Homme, the ready (made)to-wear mythopoetic clothing and olfactory line. It never existed, but in that almost existing, it was more then real.

And this is what we see across all of Tomislav’s work, the mutating and recombined aesthetic inspirations, lost but not forgotten dreams, hopes, and histories. They are neither here nor there, but rather as trails of breadcrumbs we might have left through the forest of our memories to find our way out. But Tomislav, ever the trickster, has leavened the bread with a good dose of philosophy, wit and wisdom, such that we know there is no way to find the centre of the forest, to find the way out, or to find our way home. You can never go home again, so you might as well start thinking about how to build new homes and histories. As Beckett might say, you fail again but then maybe you will fail better.

Stevphen Shukaitis
Atatürk Airport, Istanbul, 5:34AM, February 14th, 2016

Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Third One Rises

In the late 1970s when Antonio Negri found himself imprisoned on trumped up charges, he turned to Spinoza. In a context of the defeat of the autonomous movements of the time, Spinoza helped Negri find a new way forward in thinking politics and collective subjectivity. Nearly 40 years later Mike Wayne has written a book arguing for understanding Kant as an important precursor of Marxist theory. Wayne thus proposes to rescue Kant’s aesthetic theories from the confines of bourgeois interpretations, as well as from competing Kantian-Marxist formulations, both of which he argues fail to appreciate the way that Kant’s Third Critique is a significant break from his earlier work, rather than merely a logical continuation of it.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Now is the only place where things can actually happen: an interview with Joe McPhee

Recently I interviewed legendary free jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee at Café Oto for the first issue of Cesura // Acceso. McPhee has been recording and performing for over forty-five years, playing both as a solo artist and in an impressive number of collaborative units including Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet and The Thing. In particular I wanted to ask him about his approach to collaboration and the politics of music and improvisation. Here are some excerpts from that interview

Survival Unit III @ Cafe Oto

Stevphen Shukaitis: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is collaboration. How do you approach collaboration, not just in terms of particular projects, but in the way projects affect your approach to music more generally?

Joe McPhee: I really like a lot of what different people do, people whose music I really appreciate. But collaboration, it starts with a real personal kind of relationship. For example I’ve played for long time with a guitarist in France, Raymond Boni. I was in a trio with Raymond Boni and Andre Jaume. I’ve had a long time relationship with another trio in the States called Trio X; we’ve been going on now about fifteen years, it’s been almost ten years with Survival Unit III. And each one brings a different perspective to the music; different instrumentation. Tonight you’ll hear Fred Lonberg-Holm with the cello and the electronics.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Kaunas Seminar - Strategies of Refusal: Aesthetics, Labor & the Composition of Movements to Come

Kaunas, Lithuania, April 21-25th

Resistance creates surplus: the eruption of social movements generates new forms of social energies, ways of being together, creativity and forms of aesthetic production, and ultimately, forms of life. These forms of excess are not reactive, but embody a logic of expression occur prior to before they are harnessed into capitalist production and governance. This is the key insight and argument of the autonomist tradition: capitalism develops through rendering attempts to negate it into the principles of its continued transformation and development. For the autonomist tradition, as well as thinkers such as Deleuze and Foucault, resistance comes first and is the determining dynamic in relations of power. Autonomism understands resistance and power through a framework of class composition, or the relation between the dynamics of movement building (political composition) and the technical composition of capitalist domination. Cycles of struggle are composed, decomposed by integration into production and governance, and then recomposed through political organizing. Moving beyond and expanding the framework of a more narrowly focused class analysis, what would an autonomist approach show about the history of avant-garde arts and production? If it is true, as Jacques Attali argues, that changes in artistic production precede broader economic changes, the kinds of spaces and production constituted within the strategies of the avant-garde are not merely questions of interest to art history and theory, but contain useful insights for much broader questions of the changing nature of cultural labor and forms of social resistance around this labor.

The history of the avant-garde is filled with examples of opening up spaces in social life for social recomposition. The rendering of these antagonistic energies and creativity, the turning of spaces of exodus into new spaces of production, offers an interesting route for reconsidering questions of the avant-garde through a strategic framework. But this is not a strategic framework on individualized consideration of what Donald Kuspit calls the avant-garde’s psycho-strategies important as that is to consider, but rather an inherently intersubjective and singularizing consideration based on the compositional dynamics of social antagonism. If the everyday refusals of insurgent creativity are refused back into strategies of domination, the question becomes learning from this rendering to produce strategies for the self-organization of this surplus creativity through and against this process of rendering. How have attempts to infuse artistic creativity and imagination through everyday life, everyday refusals of the separation of art from daily life, been re-fused into modes of capitalist production and governance? And what can this double articulation of refusal tell us about the nature of strategic space and possibilities for recomposing an antagonistic politics of everyday life? How can the surplus sociality animated by avant-garde formations find an adequate form of self-organization? The relation between refusal and re-fusal opens up a new terrain for strategic thought in relation to everyday politics, where the history of the avant-garde is no longer separated from broader questions of political economy or movement, but becomes a point to reorient these considerations.

1. Strategy, Artistic Practice, and Social Movement
(Pirmadienis, balandžio 21 d. 18 val., Kavinė Kultūra)

Reading: Lenin and Tristan Tzara Play Chess

2. Situationism and Avant-Garde Strategy
(Antradienis, balandžio 22 d., 13 val., Gedimino g. 44-301)

Reading: Theories Made to Die in the War of Time
Reading: Metropolitan Strategies, Psychogeographic Investigations

3.  Cultural labor and forms of social resistance 
(Trečiadienis, balandžio 23 d., 13 val., Gedimino g. 44-301)
Viewpoint Magazine issue on Workers' Inquiry
4.  History of the avant-garde and dynamics of social antagonism
(Ketvirtadienis, balandžio 24 d., 14.30 val., Donelaičio g. 60-504)

5. The surplus sociality and new forms of self-organization

(Penktadienis, balandžio 25 d., 13 val., Gedimino g. 44-202)

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Thought at the Speed of Social Reproduction

There was an interesting article recently in the journal Management Learning by Martin Parker and Elke Weik: “Free spirits? The academic on the aeroplane.” They start off by countering the conception of the academic conference as this sort of grand fun filled activity that is outside of the usual realm and understanding of labor. Going to a conference, eh? That’s not really work. Cue that Dire Straits song, right? Money for nothing and checks for free, ye lazy academic slobs! Or at least this is often a common image associated with the conference.

But as Martin and Elke point out this is far from the truth, not just in the sense that academic conference indeed are very much forms of academic labor, with emphasis more on the labor depending on the conference. More interestingly they make an interesting argument about the role of the academic conference in broader patterns of academic labor. As they say
“Their freedom to travel, which entails a freedom from certain local obligations, is not always voluntary but part and parcel of professional expectations and is subject to peer and managerial evaluation. In this article, we argue that there are a lot of structural and institutional constraints built into academic mobility.” (2)
In other words, you’re at the conference more often then not because it’s a part of the job rather then a jolly good laugh. The conference is a form of interaction and academic labor that articulates that academic labor in a particular way, one that is detached from the conditions and circumstances of everyday life. Thus this tends to reward those whose ‘academic freedom’ can sustain and support this demand for making appearances at an ever-growing series of international conferences and chances for ‘visibility’ at them. Thus we get the notion of the academic free spirit who can attend such events and develop ideas at them, the global glitterari of the good and the clever, or something like that. As they note, the notion of the free spirit has long been associated with intellectual work, although more in the sense of freedom from political interference then geographical mobility. This is where it gets trickier, in the sense that it moves the question to what kinds of conditions are necessary to support these labors, and who finds themselves excluded from advancement because they are not capable of sustaining them. Sarah Brouillette recently wrote a quite good piece on this.

Sam Durant, This is Freedom?, 2008, Electric sign with vinyl text, 63 1/2 x 84 1/2 x 9 1/8 inches Edition of 3. Image courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

In short this points towards the connection created between academic work and detaching from the labors of social reproduction. It may be unclear to many people what happens at academic conferences and how it is work (is it really), but it now involves going away from the home, away from the everyday cares. Although this is perhaps not a new condition in itself, as historically (i.e. 800 years) the position of the academic entered the world as one of celibacy, a particular and more extreme form of detaching oneself from the labors of social reproduction.
This is the approach that Martin and Elke use to raise some broader points about the relationship between social reproduction and academic labor, which they then approach drawing from the sociology of knowledge (particularly Mannheim), as well as from Bourdieu. But the guiding thread that they want to work through, and against, is the notion that the ‘free floating’ thinker because he (or she) lacks a clearly defined social position is capable of understanding society more clearly. This notion underpins the idea that academics, through a certain kind of detachment, are serving a higher duty.
I’m noting that in the last paragraph I wrote he (or she), but that is not correct, and precisely the issue that is of most concern here. What are the broader effects of this argument for detachment, particularly in relationship to choices around career path, family structure, and how is capable of building an academic career (to the degree that is even an option anymore). Here it seems that the argument for academic labor as underpinned by detachment tends to benefit those who can work this detachment. To quote them again
“the pram in the hall and the insistent demands of the domestic simply do not allow for the cosmopolitan detachment required for a dedication to research. Yet this is not merely a matter of a personal dynamic of guilt and evasion, as if we were simply finger pointing at bad people, because these assumptions are also increasingly built into the structures of academic careers and university decision-making.” (8)
The academic conference then is not just a bit of fun that is not labor, but rather a certain kind of interaction that makes demands of its workers in the sense of what the must be able to detach themselves from in order to participate. Those who cannot find ways to do so will find themselves unable to make career advancements because of this, as they will be unable to accrue the social and intellectual capital developed through these networks and spaces.

The overall effects is to create a set of conditions where the academic labors that are most rewarded are those that can detach themselves from social reproduction, thus socially reproducing a particular form of the academy, namely for those who are attached from broader patterns of social reproduction. This is perhaps most obvious in the effects on the career paths of female academics (and in the ratio of male to female academic staff particularly in senior positions). They note, for instance, that the only research funding body that will cover childcare costs is L’Oreal, through its science fellowships. But this also connects to broader patterns in the reproduction of the academy, for instance by rewarding those who are less loyal to their place of work or locality (gotta move on to move up!), or in the production of an overly English centered standard in academic cultures and standards. Or for that matter in the development of an academic super-elite, particularly admin staff, who are hell bent on maximizing certain key indicators of performance at university while they’re there, but are not so focused on issues of continued research and original thought, working conditions, long term plans, or anything that does not lead to benefits in the short term (i.e. that they can take credit for).
Overall the effect is to make me want to rethink what is the connection between social reproduction and intellectual work, and academic work more generally. Partly this is personal, part of becoming a new parent, and finding it difficult to juggle these different roles and expectations without melting down occasionally. For all the various trainings and courses universities offer I’ve yet to see one focusing on this, although I have gotten some good advice from friends and colleagues (as well as a lot of discussions around how difficult this is). It’s very easy to fall back into a conception of intellectual work as needing that detachment, that separation from the labors of social reproduction. But this is not an adequate or acceptable response, and not one to fall back on, because of the way that as Martin and Elke argue, doing so ends up recreating some pretty crap gender politics. And the generalization of this notion of detached academic work has more broadly negative effects as well.
But what that leaves us with is the question of how to bring together continued intellectual work and social reproduction is more fruitful ways. How to sustain and support intellectual work at the speed of social reproduction rather then as a flight from it. If one of the main points of a blog is engaging more people with ideas, that’s exactly what I’d like to do hear, to start more conversations about ways to bring together intellectual work and social reproduction in ways that benefits and enrich both of them. And hopefully do that in ways that don’t just become a discussion about how cool places like Sweden and Denmark (18 months parental leave that can be split up to the parents? Awesome! So much more so then the UK’s crappy two week paternity leave, which inscribes in law the notion of who should care, unless they can afford to take unpaid leave).

A few weeks ago as mane people were sharing their tributes to Stuart Hall one of the most common images shared with them was one of him helping to run the crèche at the first Women's conference at. Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but this is perhaps one of the nicest things about all these tributes, that they didn’t just honor Hall as a thinker, but also as an organizer of spaces and possibilities for others, a practice that extended from keeping opening the possibilities of Cultural Studies through to the running of crèche at a Women’s conference. All of these are necessary for sustaining intellectual work and should be rewarded as such, rather then just the forms of academic labor that lead to articles, grants, and teaching materials.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Power, Knowledge, Hatred: Notes on Antagonism & Autonomist Epistemology

The worst of Italy! Not just merely slightly disreputable, but truly the worst of Italy…

These words are, of course, not mine. They were spoken by the Italian Minister of Public Administration on July 14, 2011 at a “Young Innovators” convention during which he was asked some questions about precarious workers, questions that apparently rubbed him the wrong way.

This really struck me when I read it at the beginning of Alice Mattoni’s excellent book Media Practices and Protest Politics: How Precarious Workers Mobilise in which she examines a number of recent mobilizations of precarious workers. Mattoni does a quite good job mapping out the various dynamics shaping movements like the Euro MayDay, campaigns of direct action against austerity measures, protests against university reforms, labor organizing in call centres, and spectacular media actions staged to highlight precarity in the fashion industry.

Mattoni draws from communication and media studies to come up with a useful typology of media practices employed by the precarious. Most significantly she distinguishes between what she calls “relational media practices,” or the media practices oriented towards working with media professionals, versus “activist media practices,” or ones that are more concerned with the use of media within the cycles and dynamics of movement composition themselves. A relatively simple way to think of this would be how it breaks down to internal and external dynamics of media use, in relationship to existing political movements and compositions.

This is all very well and good, and shows one of the better ways that the academic tools and disciplines, such as media and communication studies, can be put to useful ends in the service of autonomous politics. Mattoni describes a large portion of the cycle of movement composition, from the initial upswings and bursts of enthusiasm among the precarious that serve to create “a composite political subject able to act at the public level to express claims and demands” (2012: 42) to the difficulties faced by organizers trying to mobilize precarious workers precisely because of how the fractalization of the labor process often means there is no shared common space of experience from to work from. Or in workplaces where there is indeed a shared physical space there could just as easily exist wildly varying contractual arrangements that serve to segment and divide the labor force.

Despite this, what strikes me is that even though there can be an ever-greater amount of accurate analysis and understanding of the cartographies and composition of precarious labor in a sociological sense, there still feels like something is missing. And that ‘something missing’ brings us right back to the Italian minister so rudely calling out the precarious workers of the country as the ‘worst of Italy.’ This is important to highlight, not just in the sheer pig headedness of such a comment, but also in the sense of the very palpable dynamics of class hatred and condescension that one can sense in such statements. And it is responses to that, at the affective level, whether of indignation or rage, which are just as important to the organization of a precarious politics as is the analytical understanding of the changing nature of precarious labor.

This quote then brings us back to the question of class antagonism, not as something to be described or theorized, or at least not just described or theorized, but rather class antagonism as a key dynamic for building and developing understanding from. In other words, antagonism not as object of study, but rather as the intersubjective dynamic that underpins and makes the subversive analysis and comprehension of capitalism possible. Antagonism not as an affective add on, but as precondition. Toni Negri once made a claim (which came back to haunt him through the courts) about the warmth of proletarian community felt upon donning a ski mask. Perhaps it is time to assert again the necessary that responds with a raw antagonism to the class war waged from above with a ferocity that builds affective links among comrades who are struggling against it.

Mario Tronti makes very much this point in a passage from Operai e capitale, a book that has still yet to be full translated into English, though there are numerous passages that have been. In the section published in essay form as “Social Capital” Tronti argues

Only from a rigorously working-class viewpoint will the total movement of capitalist production be comprehended and utilized as a particular moment of the workers’ revolution. Only one-sidedness, in science and in struggle, opens the way both to the understanding of everything and to its destruction. Any attempt to assume the general interest, every temptation to stop at the level of social science, will only serve to better inscribe the working class within the development of capital. (1973)
Tronti here is working from what is usually referred to as the ‘Copernican Turn’ of autonomist Marxism, where it is the struggles of the working class that are emphasized and understood as the primary motor of history and determinant of capital’s development. But here he’s making a particular claim, not just about the important of understanding struggles, but doing so in an explicitly one-sided manner.

What Tronti is warning against here is the turning of weapons of class antagonism into social science tools. This might seem a bit strange given that the early operaismo comes out of a very real engagement within Italian sociology, and can largely be understood as a process where industrial sociology was stolen back from the toolbox of management approaches and placed into the metaphorical working class overall’s back pocket to be utilized in all kinds of sabotage, factory occupation, and so forth. Here Tronti is imploring us to keep the use of sociological tools as weapons, perhaps in the same vein that Pierre Bourdieu would constantly described sociology as a martial art, as a means of self-defense.

Tronti is certainly aware of this, more then aware of it. And that is precisely his caution, the warning he gives here: that any attempt to remove the antagonistic foundation from the analytical and political tools developed can only serve to reinscribe the working class within the development of capital. What Tronti is saying is that when you forget the invectives of the government ministers, of the factory foremen, of the agents of class domination who the very real hatred of sparked our the impulse of insurrection in the first place – and replace them with sterile conceptual tools – is to lose the ‘conceptual’ class struggle, even if one appears to carry it on. For Tronti, antagonism, perhaps even full out class hatred, is the affective substrate from which any sense of theoretical and political coherence will and must be built.

This is a fragment of what one could suggest is a kind of workerist epistemology, one that understands dynamics of class struggle and antagonism not just as historically, socially, and politically important, but also as developers of conceptual and philosophical tools.  That is not as that working class movements are not just social configurations that concepts and ideas emerges from, rather they are also in their antagonistic formations precisely ideas, words, made flesh in movement of uprising against domination and exploitation. This is what Ranciere gestures to when he comments that sociology, before it was an academic discipline or a denizen of universities, existed as a war machine invented in the age of the aesthetic which is also the age of democratic revolutions,” that existed as a project for the reorganization of society” (2006: 6). To develop a workerist epistemology is to maintain a certain fidelity to these origins, even if moving and adapting with the changing situation. A workerist epistemology then is not the deployment of concepts in order to fix and sanitize this antagonism, rather it is a the movement of intensifying and extending it, deepening and developing the logic of antagonism as the foundation subversion against the nature of class society itself.

Mattoni, Alice (2012) Media Practices and Protest Politics: How Precarious Workers Mobilise. Surrey: Ashgate.
Ranciere, Jacques (2006) “Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge,” Parrhesia Number 1: 1-12/

Tronti, Mario (1973) “Social Capital,” Telos No. 17: 98-121. Available at

Sunday 9 February 2014

Proletarian Eye for the Bourgeois Guy

Recently I’ve gotten back to reading through The Worker Photography Movement (1926–1939): Essays and Documents, which is the publication that accompanied the exhibition “A Hard, Merciless Light” held by Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2011. It’s one of those rare moments where actually having too much information presented about a really interesting topic actually makes it harder to start, which is strange to say because the rise of the worker photographer movement until this point has been something that has been quite underexplored. But there is something about sitting down with 400+ page catalogue that is somewhat intimidating, at least if one was thinking of reading it anywhere else then sitting in your own living room.

But I digress (and so quickly!). The overall emphasis here is charting the rise of worker photography as a movement in its multiple iterations and versions across Russia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, the US, France, and Spain (during the Civil War). And not surprisingly there are some common themes that emerge, such as the use of photography as a tool to explore the consequences of industrialization, the realities and class and exploitation, and the possibility of emergent forms of class politics. And in the publication of basically every national version of the worker photograph association there are a series of articles explaining how photography can play an important role in class struggle rather then being a plaything of the idle rich and bourgeois aesthetes, or put into the services of the capitalist advertising executive (who was really just starting to come into his own around that time).

What’s interesting about reading these debates and the putting forth of arguments for the importance of photograph as a tool of class struggle, is thinking about the contingent nature of technological and media development as they relate with the changing nature of class composition in a particular context. For the worker photography movement you could take this back to Marx’s argument in the 18th Brumaire that the small holding peasant class cannot represent itself, it must be represented. What then would the role and position of the worker photography movement be? Would it be to represent this non-class that cannot represent itself? Thus would its politics be found in representing those who could not represent themselves, because of their fragmented position in the labor process? But would not the same problems of the fragmentation of the labor process not also apply to the labors of the worker photographers themselves?

The last question is admittedly a bit anachronistic, in the sense that perhaps it is quite easy today to imagine the work of photographers as being quite individualized because of the way photographic technology has developed since then. We don’t even need to go the local CVS to develop the images anymore, but simply click away and then upload to whatever mediated sharing site we so choose. Of course that doesn’t mean that all the labor that goes into producing the equipment has disappeared, nor the free labor that greases the wheels of the social circulation of images, etc. But what’s interesting is that the labor produce that underpinned the image for the worker photographers that populate this book is much different. The sheer cost and complexity of tools involved at the time (1926 – 1939) meant that they could only really be used collectively. The costs involved, and relatively scarcity of the tools were thus not surprisingly something that necessitated the constant justification of why this was a useful endeavor in the first place, as it could easily not seem to be worth it. But the amount of resources involved meant that worker photography really was only possible when underpinned and supported by forms of association and collectivity that could bear those costs. Basically you had to do it together if you wanted to do it at all.

There’s something interesting here about moments when an emergent media or otherwise form of technology still involves quite high costs, thus through that almost require a form of collectivity around it to bear that cost. For the worker photography movement this could be described as where the costs of the technology thus lead to creating a certain form of social composition in order to support their usage, which is pretty handy given that this thankfully happened to fit with their ideological outlook anyways.

The most interesting parts of the book are when the defense of worker photography has been gotten past, the use of photography as a form of class struggle as representation, and the authors of the various texts get into talking about the training of the proletarian eye. In other words, discussing the classed nature of perception and visuality itself. This comes through in Anatoly Lunacharsky’s statements about the importance of understanding the image as a medium of literacy and the importance of visual literary in worker education, which strikes me as quite forward thinking for the 1930s. Even today, over 80s years later, I’m surprised that most of my student have not really had any experience in how to interpret and work with images in any serious way. It also comes through strongly in Edwin Hoernle’s argument that “The worker’s world is invisible to the bourgeoisie, and unfortunately to most proletarians also” (109). But it’s at moments like these where the faith in the technology takes over and its usually suggested that the objective powers of the photograph to accurately represent can overcome the ideological training and trained blindness that had proceeded. One can be wishful, and perhaps appreciate how this might have been thought before, but alas tis’ far from true.

I'll leave Lunacharsky to puzzle over that while I sleep...