Monday, 30 September 2013

Speaking Code to Power

Review of Cox, Geoff and Alex McLean (2013) Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression. London: MIT Press. Submitted to Rhizomes.

At a conference in 2001 Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi performed the source code of the ‘lovebug’, or ‘I love you virus,’ which had caused immense amounts of disruption and economic damage the year before. The lovebug virus spread with immense speed by attaching itself to a very human need, for affection, or so it might easily be understood as such was when millions of people chose to open an innocuous looking e-mail with the subject heading of ‘I love you’ not realizing the malicious code included. Bifo’s performance of the virus code was not based around discussing these social aspects, or trying to analyze their meaning, perhaps through a discussion of the pathologies of immaterial labor, as he has in the years since then (2009). Rather Bifo chose to perform the code itself, to literally read out the coding involved in the operations of the virus. By doing so Bifo effectively moved the conversation about the politics and aesthetics of the viral form, not just looking at their social effects and meanings – but rather on the operations of the code itself – to ask from there what the politics of the code in itself might be.

Fast forward twelve years later and in many ways cultural and social theory still tends, when discussing technology, to somewhat neglect the operations of the technologies themselves, in favor of other aspects of their effects and social functioning. It is this tendency that Geoff Cox and Alex McLean’s new book, Speaking Code, is an excellent corrective to, with its focus on the aesthetics and politics of code. Their analysis focuses on the functioning of the code itself, and what sense of politics and aesthetics can be derived from its functioning and through its performance, particularly in relationship to language. Intriguingly their text is not simply just an analysis, but also a performative gesture, which intersperses sections of code written by McLean with Cox’s analysis. In this combination writing itself is a critical practice where the sections of code function “not as illustrations but as additional forms of criticism” (12).

By focusing on the performative and language-like aspects of coding Cox and McLean manage to avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism, whether in negative or positive senses. Thus they fall neither into assumptions about the dominating tendencies of an all-encompassing technological rationality, or work from any implicit assumptions about how they inherently cooperative and collective nature of immaterial and digital labor will lead to new forms of potential politics. Their analysis emerges from an engagement with the particulars of the functioning of code, but one that considers these functioning within wider systems of communication involving both human and non-human agents. 

This approach of holding together the cultural, technological, and organizational recalls the work of Jon McKenzie (2001) in his analysis of the functioning of performance across those multiple registers. Likewise Cox and McLean focus on how coding functions to interpellate subjects into its operations and functioning. This interpellation, however, does not occurs in the way the I’ve always imagined interpellation in the Althusser-ian version, like god in Monty Python opening the sky and calling out ‘hey you’

For Cox and McLean interpellation occurs in a protocological manner, through distributed networks of communication. Thus one is not interpellated by the actions or speech emanating from a single body, but rather through the operations of protocols and their coding: “the call to order is rather more like being allocated an Internet protocol (IP) address that defines you as a unique user in the network” (5).

At one point they draw from an example used by Mladen Dolar on the failure of interpellation. Dolar describes a situation where an army commander issues an order to attack, only to have his soldiers fail to respond, instead responding with an appreciation of the beauty of the commander’s voice. In this way Cox and McLean move their engagement with the failure of interpelleation to an engagement with the aesthetics of code, suggesting that the aesthetics of coding are useful for shifting the focus from command and control to cultural expression and refusal. Here aesthetics becomes an avenue for the undercutting of determinism, moving from the rational and calculative, to that which exceeds it: an excess that partially determines the forms of rationality that rely upon it.

Cox and McLean point to a number of esoteric coding practices that suggest create ways for undermining the authority and operations of the code itself. Coding language such as Befunge, Brainfuck, or Piet they suggest “challenge expectations of what source code does in itself and what it might do once run… undermine the interpellative authority of the computer and stress alternative interpretations like the paradoxical qualities of speech” (7). The cover of the book itself, which looks vaguely like a version of the Malevich cross produced in a hippy daycare facility, was created through the use of Piet. They suggest that there are many programmers working in this spirit, focusing on the making of code itself in ways that connect to larger structural issues around language, communication, and the poetic qualities of coding itself. This extends beyond interventions that are specifically artistically or aesthetically oriented into the ways that norms of values celebrating ‘beautiful coding’ inform programming practices (Case and Pinerio 2006).

This connects with a number of themes found within the debates of post-operaist thinkers whom Cox and McLean draw from, particular Bifo’s work, but more broadly. Their focus is then not just on the operations of the coding, and how it interpellates subjects through its operations, but the kinds of codeworking that are involved in this assemblage. But here the notion of codeworking has the potential to expand and radically transform the notion of labor. Codework here refers both to the labors involved in the writing of the code itself, and the labors performed by code once it is executed. If were are in a condition today where physical, intellectual, and machine labor have increasingly integrated, the operations of codework provide a key way to understand these transformations. For Cox and McLean codework “necessarily carries with it the labor that has been invested in its production, as well as the labor invested in the broader apparatuses through which it is served” (39). This opens the question of if the operation of code that interpellates human labor is in itself working, understood as a form labor. And if labor is occurring outside of the human body and subjects, one is left with an entirely new and transformed conception of labor.

Drawing from Bifo, who has written the foreword to the book, Cox and McLean argue that by integrating the intellect, language and imagination, “labor power produces new and more totalizing kinds of subjectivities” (50). This is how Bifo understands the soul, which he suggests has been put to work. Likewise Cox and McLean focus instead on the voice, present through the operations of code and what it brings to itself, which is deeply embedded within these processes. Taking the approach to aesthetics and politics of codework that Cox and McLean develops thus brings us back to the question of developing new forms of political subjectiviation and antagonism in and despite the neutralizing tendencies that attributed to their current operation, for instance in the functioning of social and interactive media. This is argued to be “just another example of capital recuperating the democratic potential of “new” technology for the privatization of public assets. It sells the public its own publicness” (91).

If not then corporate social media that collects rents on the immaterial assets and creativity of the laboring sociality of its users, what else would, or could there be? This is precisely the question that Cox and McLean leave us with, asking

Can we imagine autonomous coding practices that generate possibilities for actually existing alternatives; or a coding public that is also able to recursively act for-itself? This would represent an expression of networked intelligence that has separated itself from proprietary forces with some degree of autonomy from economic determination, rediscovering the actuality of what it means to speak and act freely in public. (96)

This would be to work towards an autonomous coding practice, but that does not make any assumptions about its autonomy based only on the form it takes, the labor the animates, or the concepts that motivates it. Rather it is these multiple relations of coding, culture, performance and labor are intertwined in the performance of coding, and its operation.

Hopefully it could avoid being this cheesy...

Alex Galloway suggested recently (2012) that there are very few books on new media worth reading. It is because of how easy it is for any analysis of media or technology to fail to hold together an engagement with culture, technology, labor, and sociality at the same time. It is a difficult task indeed. Over recent years there has been a growing trend of just this kind of analysis, a critically informed media theory operating at multiple levels, that draws from autonomist theory (Wark 2007; Bratich 2008; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Coleman 2012). With Speaking Code Cox and McLean have written a book that raises precisely the right questions, drawing out aesthetics and politics from the operations of code itself, and using that to tease out possibilities for the coding of autonomous practices in the present.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Artist Collectives: History, Organization, and Politics

Alan Moore and I will be running a two-day workshop on artist collectives tomorrow and Friday. Here's the information on it.

You wanna know about artist collectives? We can tell you all about em... even better if over beers at Ruigoord

Artist Collectives: History, Organization, and Politics
September 26-27th, 2013

Artists work in groups. These contingent collective formations change shape according to the necessities of artists’ lives. Collective process then is a key question in political and economic organization, facilitating autonomy from the art system and resistance to dominant market mechanisms. Despite the commonsense understanding of artists as independent entrepreneurs, the economy of artistic production does not conform to the model of most kinds of business. Artistic production is supported by a mixed economy of which the market for commodity art is only part. While the organizational structure of artistic work in groups has not been much studied, this workshop engages with the question of collectivity among artists. Working collectively is about making a living. But modalities of collectivity are also a prime concern of those who want to remake the world, to join the great issues of the day, and to find a reason to work at all. 

The first day of this course will take place at firstsite in Colchester and will focus on approaches for studying artist collectives and historical examples. The second day will take the form of a drifting seminar in London, engaging with collaboratively run artist spaces and collectives.

More information / background
Art Spaces Archives Project
Groups & Space 
Art Gangs
Minor Compositions

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Fragment on Comparative Decomposition

These are some notes I made after attending a gathering of comrades discussing the thirtieth anniversary (or perhaps birthday) of the Midnight Notes Collective. In other words they are from 2008. This meeting led eventually to the Promissory Notes pamphlet. 

I’m posting them here not so much as a response to that but in the sense the overall point I was trying to make, that a greater comparative focus on class decomposition and the forms of political recomposition that are made possible by it, still strikes me as a compelling point. And it’s one that I’d like to revisit and expand in a more substantive. Or something like that anyways…

First off let me apologize again for taking so long to write this, which is especially lame given as I wrote down these notes in June. Sigh… lame excuses aside, here we go:

I have to admit being a bit surprised to encounter the framing of discussion at the gathering in June in terms of crisis theory, or more particularly the framing of the operaisti / autonomist Marxist argument of the determining nature of working class resistance as a theory of crisis. The reason for that I suppose is more one of association than anything else, namely that whenever I hear the phrase “crisis theory” my immediate association is some form of econo-mystic determinism, searching for the direction of a falling rate of profit that will lead inevitably to a crisis in the system and collapse, at which point the emergent revolutionary subject can… well, you know the story. In other words for me crisis theory was also the province of a kind of structuralist Marxism that I thought would be almost directly opposite to a broadly workerist / autonomist politics.

Marxist magician raises class struggle from grave through econo-mystic incantations

But thinking about it more it makes, as one can see how Tronti’s work as well as many others can be thought of as crisis theory, but namely one of how emergent forms of antagonism and collective subjectivity trigger crisis rather than being determined by structural laws of capital. But then this gets to what seemed to be one of the main threads of discussion during the gathering, namely a certain questioning of articles of faith, or that there indeed might be crises that are not triggered by forms of resistance. For instance, it would strike me as somewhat difficult at least to show how the current financial crisis is a direct result of working class struggle.

It's me, Mario! I mean, Tronti-o...

While I can understand this concern, to a degree it seems a bit misplaced. Tronti’s argument (as well as how it been developed subsequently) is really a political argument and intervention, not a theological or philosophical statement. This might be different for someone like Foucault or Deleuze when they posit the ontological primacy of resistance, but this is a separate matter that I’ll put aside for the moment. The key intervention here is a strategic one, namely a shifting of the focus back to working class resistance and composition rather than an assumption of the self-moving power of capital and all that. Now Tronti definitely overstates this a bit, to the point where both working class resistance is the determining factor of capitalist development and paradoxically the social factory is the moment where factory discipline is the exclusive model of social domination

Both of these seem, well, a bit overstated, but perhaps overstated to make a point. The argument is made for polemical and strategic weight, to add to its ability to act as a pole of political recomposition. So that means that there is no necessary reason when struck by a crisis where there is no immediate and apparent working class resistance that has caused it to search for some sort of political organizing which might have triggered in unseen strange loops, or to question the correctness of the thesis. Rather, it would seem fairly simple to just say that there are moments where capital’s internal contradictions generate crisis and there are many more moments for where forms of working class resistance, social insurgency, etc. generate crisis. They’re not mutually exclusive positions by any means. The question of the relation between them, and how to build forms of political recomposition out of that conjunction, however, is much more complicated and more pressing.

This brings us much closer to the point of the discussion, namely that of comparative decomposition.  The reason that I proposed a group on this topic is that while clearly there are many ways in which capital and the state are developed and draw from working class resistance and social resistance more generally, this is not a mechanical of straightforward dynamic. The primacy (or primacy of focus on compositional politics) on forms of resistance is not the flip side of a econo-mystic Marxism (the substitution of one form of determination for another), but rather the question of how to build from emergent compositions in ways that can cause rupture and build cycles of struggle.

The possibility of working from conditions of political decomposition does not necessarily mean that such will happen, or happen the same way in different places at the same time. So comparative decomposition then becomes a question to see in what ways forms of resistance are being drawn from in the continued workings of capital and the state, and what are the possibilities for political recomposition starting from these moments. That would be the question and discussion that I would like to open (or re-open as the case may more likely be).

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Recomposing precarity: Notes on the laboured politics of class composition

I have an article about precarity and class composition in the new issue of ephemera. Largely it's a book review, focusing on The Precariat by Guy Standing and Precarious Liberation by Franco Barchiesi - although there is a more general consideration of precocity, and in particular its ambivalent nature as a concept.

I'll paste in below some of the thoughts that finish off the article and relate to how precarity as a concept fits within the history of autonomism, as well as the risks and benefits of the sociology-ification of strategic political concepts. This is something that I want to come back and think through more.

Perhaps rather than asking the question of what precarity is it is more useful to ask what precarity does, which is to say, what does precarity add to political analysis and strategy? This is a useful perspective precisely because it points to the reality that precarity is not one thing, but rather a versatile concept that has been deployed differently in varying situations and contexts. To compare the few examples discussed thus far, first we looked at precarity as a way to frame the desires of young workers in 1970s Italy to escape the factory and the constraints of regular wage labour: precarity as something beautiful and worth celebrating. In this framing precarity is the common ground of those who reject the Fordist compromise for a different conception of politics, life, and labour. By the time the concept reappears in the discourse of movements arising in the wake of the anti-globalisation movement, precarity is understood far differently, not as something to be celebrated but as a conceptual framework for theorising the shared ravages of neoliberalism across varying position of status, and income. Precarity is used to find a common ground for the positions of migrant workers and freelancers, with all problems that go along with such a proposition. Standing takes up precarity as a way to refocus labour politics upon populations ignored by only focusing on wage labour and unions, and to bring those stuck in more precarious positions into a common political project. Standing seeks to draw upon the energies of ‘primitive rebellion’ to rebuild a new institutional context for politics. Finally, Barchiesi rethinks the question of precarity within the context and complexity of the politics of national liberation in South Africa, in particular how they are rooted in a conception of work undercut by the growing precarisation of work. While each of these perspectives has its value, I’d suggest that Barchiesi’s work is the most profound, precisely because it tries to employ precarity not as a category to be applied, but rather as a moment of instability within the radical political imagination that is as much promise as threat. The precariat might indeed be the new dangerous class, but that could very well be part of its political potential rather being a danger. In each of these cases what we see is the tension between precarity as a sociological and as a strategic and political concept.

Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter in their (2008) analysis provide a very useful insight into the politics of precarity and the ambivalence existing within precarity as political focus and analytic category. They declare the last thing they want to do is to ‘sociologise precarity’, to render into a concept that can be applied to map out the changing nature of class. In short, they are arguing against the use of precarity as a concept in the way that Standing seeks to develop it as concept, one that assess the current shape of labour and develop a new politics around this class formation. That is not to totally reject empirical approaches, which Neilson and Rossiter agree can be of assistance in identifying different types and experiences of precarity. But they argue that while this work can be a prelude to political organization, it is in itself not enough to generate a political intervention adequate to the challenges of the current situation. Rather than precarity as a concept to be applied, Neilson and Rossiter argue for a conception of precarity that cannot be grounded. For them precarity is not an empirical object but rather an experience, one that is best investigated through a ‘transpositional movement between the theoretical and the practical’ – a transversal movement that is never stable (2008: 63).

This in part explains why Neilson and Rossiter comment that the decline of precarity as a political focus connects to its rise as an academic area of investigation. It is not simply a comment on how academic work lags woefully years behind the pace of political developments and thus can only serve to pick up the pieces of social movement developments after they have subsided (although there is something to be said for that). Rather it is that the approaches employed in investigating precarity have entirely different ways of working. Or to express it in their framing, the investigation of precarity as a sociological phenomenon wants to fix it as a category that can be used for empirical work. While this fixing of the category, the agreement over what the concept is, can seem entirely reasonable on a certain level, this represents a kind of blocking of the transversal and transpositional moment that they argue is what was valuable in precarity as a political concept. Neilson and Rossiter suggest that precarity still has a critical potential, albeit one that is limited, but a potential that can be realised more by rejecting sociological framings and expectations of analytical and descriptive consistency.

It is in this sense that it is most useful to rethink precarity by connecting it back more closely to the autonomist tradition. That’s not to say that there is some ‘purer essence’ of the concept that is employed by political actors and not by academic writers. That would be to re-install a kind of essentialist theory-praxis divide in political analysis. Rather, what can be seen in the concept of precarity is a kind of tension between analysis and politics that has long existed in the middle of autonomist politics. One can see this in the tradition’s key concepts, such as the paired notions of technical and political composition. The former is used to understand the current composition of capital and workings of the economy including technical skills, knowledge, level of scientific development, and so forth. The latter is the existing political energies and capacities of the working class, or as the notion has been expanded even more broadly, the capacities of political actors in revolt, to transform the world around then. The autonomist tradition is marked heavily by a radical subjectivism that rejects narratives privileging capital’s perspective in explaining and understanding social and economic crisis and transformation.  Perhaps the most important element of the autonomist tradition is to emphasise this radical subjective becoming of political composition over the more traditionally political economic analysis of technical composition – and to privilege it as the basis of analysis and political strategy. But this very privileging of political composition and subjectivity brings along its own difficulties. If applied in a dogmatic and extreme fashion such an approach can lead to grand declarations about new forms of emerging subjectivities and political energies that lack a sufficient connection to the conditions around them. It can become almost a form of prophecy and declaration, unmoored from the composition of the social.

It is this ongoing tension between technical and political composition that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the autonomist concepts, but also their weakness. This is why the multiple meanings and roles of precarity, what it does as a concept, is not a problem of its lack of coherence, but rather an expression of its value. The meaning of precarity is not determined by a set of criteria that define it, and thus can be operationalised as tools of research (or at least solely as them). Rather it is a political tool whose meaning is shaped by the context from which it emerges, the composition of labour and politics in which it is utilised. Precarity is thus beautiful, an escape from the factory, and horrible, in the conditions of intensifying neoliberal globalisation and destruction of social welfare programs. It is like Walt Whitman, large, containing multitudes, and possibly contained by multitudes. Precarity is most useful not as a concept for mapping out new class categories for integrating them into a new institutional politics, but as a tool for intervening in the shaping of new struggles. Precarity is not just a question of the changing composition of labour, but of experimenting with modes of being and community that are not determined by labour. The task then for the politics of precarity today is not to refine it as a sociological concept to be applied in research but to renew it as a compositional project for the development of new forms of autonomy.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Work, It’s the Sound of the Police

1. Zerowork Training?
“One the problems,” Ben said, “is that while we’ve been quite good at celebrating the refusal of work, we never had anything like zerowork training.”

When I heard this statement it struck me as quite strange, and not because of the context, which was odd enough in itself. My friend and comrade Ben made this during a meeting of the editorial collective for Autonomedia, a long running Brooklyn-based autonomist publisher. He said this in a context of discussing what he learned and experience in the everyday operations of publishing. More particularly Ben, after being involved with the project for a decade, had decided that it was time for him to move on. In other words this was the autonomist equivalent of an ‘exit meeting,’ a moment to declare his exit from a collective whose state goal was to exit from work as well, to “substruct the planetary work machine” in the words of p.m.

When I heard this at first it seemed a bit amusing and absurd. What exactly would zerowork training be? Could you actually train someone for refusing work? And what would the key skills involved be? Could you tell they mastered the idea when the work of the training itself was refused?

As strange as it might sound, Ben’s suggestion ultimately struck me as quite true, and insightful. Simply declaring that one would like to abolish work does not magically equip you with the skills and organizational capacities to make that happen. The refusal of work is a concept and practice, an approach to and understanding of the political, not an incantation. Among the concepts associated with post-autonomia it is one of the most popular and widely circulated, but also one of the most misunderstood. A few years ago when Jack Bratich and I facilitated a popular education class on autonomist ideas and histories we constantly found ourselves arguing against assumptions that the refusal of work was primarily individualistic, along the lines of clichéd hippy drop out culture. But work refusal is many things, from mass exodus from the factory and wildcat strikes to attempted individual escape plans. The point is not to exclude one form from consideration, but to see the relation between them: how different modes of refusal work together to animate new forms of social composition. In that sense often times refusal serves more as a provocation or a utopian demand in Kathi Weeks sense (2011) then something that is elaborated in an expanded way.


2.The Pleasures (and Mostly Sorrows) of Work

Alain de Botton, midway through his book The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work, suggests that the most remarkable feature of modern work practices may be less a question of technology or organization, and more one of a mentality: namely the idea that work should make us happy. He is not suggesting that work in all its manifestations has not been a central element previously, with its changes it mutations often occupying a quite central role, rather that there is something unique in the development of the idea that work is something more than punishment, that “we should seek to work even in the absence of financial imperative” (2009: 106).

One can, and perhaps should, quibble about whether this is a totally unique and unprecedented development. Taking a longer-term historical view there have also been advocates of the glories of work for its own good, as well as harsh critics, and the ongoing attempts of the multitude to escape from the drudgery of the workday. But regardless of that De Botton does raise an interesting point about the way that work is celebrated in the present, as a kind of cultural good and value to be cherished above and beyond rewards or remuneration that it may produce. It is this kind of celebration that arguably ties together the continued celebration of artistic and cultural work with the continued attempts to impose unpaid or very poorly paid work to the recipients of social benefits. While they may differ greatly in level of cultural prestige and conditions, there is an underlying resonance in the notion of an intrinsic “good” of work that exceeds external rewards.

Even if this is not an unprecedented development, it does seem that it is a much more widespread conception then any previous point in history. And this development shows us something quite interesting about the processes and dynamics that operate in the fueling of cultures. Why would work become all the more celebrated and praised in an age of post-Fordist neoliberal outsourced crisis prone wonder? What I would suggest here is that work is all the more celebrated today as a good in itself, as a resource that can be employed without limit, precisely because of the greater realization of the very real limits on resources more broadly that has become hard to ignore. 

Anson Rabinbach in his excellent book The Human Motor genealogically traces the shifting terrains of energy and fatigue through the origins of modernity, spanning across philosophy, physics, and science studies. These debates around energy and conversation underpinned the European science of work, and with it the eventual rise of management and industrial relations, or in other words the social technologies for the intensified and expanded extraction of labor. Rabinbach suggests that a focus on energy conservation became became the Continental answer to a Darwinian-Spencerian vision of society propelled by laws of conflict and struggle. While TH Huxley and others popularized thermodynamics as a metaphor for capitalist superiority these ideas, grounded in scientific materialism and Lamarckian biology, pointed toward “an equilibrium of economic expansion and social justice” (1992: 179). The ideal was that this was to stand above social classes and political imperatives, and rather would be the domain of expert state planners and scientists who could use the study of efficiency and the reduction of waste to turn society into a giant industrial enterprise that would maximize productivity and social justice at the same time. Needless to say this is a notion that would be embraced by few today, even if there is still something sympathetic in the suggestion that the study of efficiency can be used to reduce work and improve conditions rather then intensify exploitation.

3. The Limits to Immaterial Labor

When the Club of Rome published its report The Limits to Growth in 1972 it was something of a shock in many circles to suggest that there were very real limits to the usage of ecological and natural resources, ones that needed to be taken into account. In the forty-some years since then this has become a much more common notion. But as David Harvey has argued again and again, capital does not really solve its problems as much as it moves them around. The recognition of limits to growth and resources has been paired with continued attempts to reduce the cost of labor, the value of work, in varied and often quite vicious ways. These have ranged from attacks on unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the globalized re-organized of production, the rise of financialization, and a whole host of broader social processes. In the realm of management the discontents of workers have been met with varying changes in approaches from the humanization and job enrichment, to teamwork and ‘fun at work.’ The past decade’s development of the digital economy and network culture likewise has been accompanied by massive expositions of free work, where tasks can be outsourced into bite sized parcel that break down the labor process along with the wages.

While forms of immaterial and cultural work have been hailed as the greater source of value production by management and business theorists, while at the same time likewise being celebrated as the forming the basis of new form of communism by various strands of contemporary post-autonomist thought, this conjuncture should give one pause to think. Perhaps the demand for meaningful work, for work of value and purpose, might mean one thing in the context of rejecting the factory line and the drudgeries of industrial labor? But what does it mean when this very desire for meaning in work become the ideological apparatus that renders us into an apparently infinite resource of workers willing to work not for money but because we believe in what we’re doing, or have some attachment to it? While this greater subjective attachment to work in and beyond its external rewards may have developed within certain sectors, such as the art world and among entrepreneurs, it has drastic consequences when it is generalized beyond those areas.

This has been explored recently in the work of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, who departs from the post-autonomist celebration of immaterial labor to focus on its limits and downfalls: namely exhaustion, depression, and the breakdown and blocking off of moments and possibilities for social recomposition that had been the main focus of autonomist class composition analysis. In essence what Bifo suggests is that we have reached a point where the transformation of working practices actively prevent the emergence of new forms of political movement, of forms of social antagonism capable to radical transforming the present. While this analysis might indeed seem overly pessimistic, especially given the outbreaks of new forms of social movements during the past few years. Rather Bifo argues for a kind of active withdrawal from labor, returning to the autonomist notion of the refusal of work but in expanded forms that create exodus from the economic sphere altogether: “Autonomy does not refer to a new totality to found, nor to a general subversion of the present, but to the possibility of escape, of self-reliance. Autonomy means reduction of contacts with the economic sphere” (2011: 176).

4. Work! Work! It’s the Sound of Police

For at the sight of work – that is to say, severe toil from morning till night – we have the feeling that it is the best police, that it holds every one in check and effectively hinders the development of reason, of greed, and of desire for independence. For work uses up an extraordinary proportion of nervous force, withdrawing it from reflection, meditation, dreams, cares, love, and hatred… And now, horror of horrors! it is the “workman” himself who has become dangerous; the whole world is swarming with “dangerous individuals – Friedrich Nietzsche (1997: 174)

To conclude, let us return to the beginning. It does seem today that work is indeed, as Nietzsche argued, the best policeman. It holds a function of governing social life even when its role in adding productive value seems to slip away, when we find ourselves in the position of what Peter Fleming and Carl Cederstrom refer to as “dead men working” (2012). It might seem at in times of biopolitical production, where the police function of work is thus the police functioning across all of life, that the refusal of work is the refusal of life itself. Not surprisingly this leads to some rather dismal sounding conclusions about the possibility of autonomy and social recomposition. While I can appreciate a certain degree of questioning of the assumptions around the potentials of immaterial labor and networking circulated in debates emerging from post-autonomia over the past decade, I’d nevertheless argue there’s no reason to follow such arguments through to rather dire conclusions. Stefano Harney suggests that this can be found most readily within the black radical tradition precisely in the way that it takes up the problem of how not to refuse work but one’s life when life is the work. For Harney this “is the dimension of original exodus; this is the practice of fugitivity found within the black radical tradition, the escape that does not need to go anywhere but remains escape” (2008).

The project to be undertaken, which I’ve tried to hint at here, is to instead take a more compositional approach to understanding and working with different forms of refusal. That it to say to ask question like what form of social surplus is produced by the refusal? What form of collectivity? And following from that, what circuits of value production and valorization are they enmeshed in? What is the notion of value, of social collectivity, that is embodied in the refusal and how it responds to circuits of capture and accumulation?

Bernard Marszalek in the new introduction to Paul Lafrague’s classic text The Right to be Lazy hints at another important direction, namely that the opposite of work, what is produced by its refusal, is neither leisure or idleness. Rather for Marszalek the opposite of work is “autonomous and collective activity – ludic activity – that develops our unique humanity and ground our perspective of reversing perspective” (Lafargue 2011: 19). A compositional approach to work refusal is then not a question of doing nothing, but developing the skills, capacities, organization, and collective becomings that make possible and sustain these ludic activities and social wealth. In short they are the very form of zerowork training that my friend Ben asked for. This would be a pedagogy of learning not to labor, but not as a form of individual refusal, but as a socialization of refusal. Learning not to labor sits at the junction of the refusal of work and the re-fusing of social energies of refusal back into supporting the continued affective existence and capacities of other forms of life, way of being together, as practice as a form of embodied critique.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Metropolitan Strategies, Psychogeographic Investigations

Joanna Figiel and I have a paper coming out in a special issue of Cultural Studies <=>Critical Methodologies on "Confronting Neoliberalism." Basically it's an argument for bringing together autonomist class composition analysis with psychogeography, particularly as a way to understand the changing nature of cultural labor in the metropolis. In part this is a reflection on the approach that we've been developing in the Metropolitan Factory project.

Thanks to the wonders of speeded-up-and-outsourced-to-India editorial production the article has appeared online in advance of the print version. The full version can be read and downloaded here.

Here's some snazzy highlights from it:

"It is this conjunction and changed value production that bringing together psychogeography and class composition analysis in a more concerted way can help to address. The Situationists investigated ways that the accumulation of capital transformed the environments on multiple levels, from the physical shaping of space to the mental and emotional environments. When capital has extended its circuits of valorization through the city in much more pronounced ways, for instance by orienting around creative industries and city policies, the shaping of the city is embedded directly within the changing circuits of capital accumulation…

The purpose of bringing together autonomist class composition analysis and psychogeography would be to develop an approach for drifting through and understanding the new territories of value accumulation in the city configured as a factory space. What are the possibilities for political recomposition within these circuits? If capital is drawing from an expanded terrain of value production that relies upon immense amounts of free labor, what possibilities are there for disrupting accumulation within these spaces? And perhaps even more importantly (even if somewhat dispiritingly), what the processes and dynamics that are blocking moments of political recomposition? While there has been a great deal of discussion about the inherent radicality and social cooperation found within some forms of immaterial labor, often it seems that these have not led to the kind of political outcomes or collectivity emerging from them that one might have expected. The basin of immaterial labor, far from bursting forth with new communist militants, rather seem to be inhabited by people who might seem to be characterized by high degree of possessive individualism, more concerned about the nature of their practice, and with the very real questions of surviving within the challenging conditions of the city itself, more so then with questions of collective conditions of struggles. Perhaps it might be that their position within circuits of labor and reproduction tends to block, or preclude forms of collectivity from emerging, as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has suggested. But if this the case, then what is needed is a closer investigation of the dynamics through which these blockages occur in order to sabotage the process…

What is clear from these brief examples is that the forms that political recomposition would take within the metropolitan factory are significantly different from those employed within industrial struggles previously. Organizing around arts and cultural labor, in circuits of immaterial work, would necessitate a different approach – in the same way the call for a general strike might not be the best tactic for precarious workers. The conditions of creative labor within the metropolis are often times extremely individualizing and isolating, where freelance workers find themselves moving from café to café, project to project, with no common space that they encounter others facing the similar conditions. The purposes of bringing together psychographic drifts with class composition analysis is not to propose in advance any particular tactics for countering these conditions – rather it is to suggest that not enough is known about the particularities and compositions of these situations – and that any radical politics worthy of the name must begin from working within and against them…

In one of the few exhibitions staged by the Situationists Guy Debord wrote over the painting of fellow SI member Pinot Gallizio, “Abolition du travail aliene” (Abolition of alienated labor). Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen argues that this could serve as a bit of mantra for the SI, that the creativity “the artist was endowed with in bourgeois society had to be set free and generalized.”  In this sense it was not all that paradoxical that the SI both celebrated and despised the role of the artist. It was not so much that they were opposed to the existence of creative practice, play, or imagination at all – for this is exactly what they wanted to expand all throughout everyday life in revolutionary directions. But this is precisely their objection to the restricted role of creativity within the figure of the artist (although the same could be said of the restrictive role of the creative class or cultural industries). For the SI art had to be realized throughout the everyday and not just within the separate realm of the art world.

In the conditions of neoliberal post-Fordist capitalism fuelled by creativity, play, and desire, art has indeed moved beyond the separate realm of the art world. Unfortunately the effects of this artistic sublation have been somewhat less then liberatory. In these conditions it no longer makes sense to make recourse to play and creativity in the same way, assuming that liberating them will drastically transform everyday life. In reality it is precisely a continued attachment to such claims that may bind people even tighter to their own domination. The task of finding new methods for contesting neoliberal capitalism starts not from continually recycling the ideas of previous revolutionary movements without adapting them to the current conditions. Rather it starts from understanding how the demands of previous movements have shifted patterns of life and labor – and by drifting through this metropolitan factory and its circuits of valorization, finds new ways to sabotage these very circuits.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

What Are You Reading For? Modes of Critique, Modes of Production

written for the Cahiers de l’idiotie special issue on “The University”

While Bill Hicks is often remembered as a comedic genius, he is much less commonly thought of as a pedagogical thinker, labor theorist, or management guru. Despite that, there are moments where in his dark humor where he points to key issues for these areas. For instance describing his experience a night after a performance (2001), Hicks finds himself eating in a waffle house, where he is reading a book. While waiting for his food Hicks find himself interrupted first by someone who declares “Well look here we have ourselves a reader” and then a question from the waitress, “What are you reading for?” Hicks is perplexed by this, responding that while he’s used to be asking what he is reading he’s stumped by the question what is he reading for. After taking a second to respond he answers that one of the reasons he’s reading is so that he doesn’t end up as a waitress in a waffle house.

True, this is a joke, but, carrying on in a long satirical tradition, Hicks diagnoses what is one of the key contradictions of academic labor today, particularly for academic workers who think of themselves as encouraging skills of critical reflection and engagement as part of their pedagogical practice. What does Hicks’ answer to the question really say? Basically his reply is founded on the notion that he is engaging in reading, or one might say in a broader sense in education, so that he is not caught working in a low-waged job with little prospects for promotion, higher pay, job security, and so forth. In short Hicks here responds that what he is doing is part of gaining some form of social advancement. This is an understandable and long standing trope, one that underlies much of the rise of the university in the post-WWII era as a mass experience, namely that education is a pathway to material security and advancement out of the working conditions of low waged, industrial capitalism. There are likely multiple issues this anecdote points towards, but I use it as an introduction to thinking about the relation between pedagogical practice and a broader sense of the labor process, but starting from the realization that students are already workers.

Learning to Labor, Labor of Learning

Paul Willis in his classic book Learning to Labor (1982) describe the way that it is precisely the rejection of education by working class British lads that slots them into their continued role as future factory workers. By refusing to knowledges and skills within education, and the opportunity for advancement offered through such, the lads refusal means that they have little other choice than taking the low-skilled, low paying factory jobs (ironically enough the very jobs that would shortly be disappearing in the rise of post-Fordist capitalism). But this is not to blame them, as much as that might appear to be the argument developed at first glance. What Willis makes clear is that it is hard to imagine how such working class students would choose otherwise, or more precisely why they would want to. This is due to the heavily class structured nature of the educational system, one that is based around a certain kind of class elitism about what constitutes the proper objects of knowledge and their study, and all that goes along with in. In such Willis is arguing that the very habitus of the working class lads is such that to not refuse the opportunity for advancement through education would precisely be a betrayal of the working class community from which they come, a betrayal of the bonds of solidarity and community in which they are formed.

What we see here is a kind of refusal of pedagogical labor, of academic achievement, which ends up forming the lads for their place in the working of the economy. In short it still ends up reproducing the class relationship. One of the interesting dynamics that emerges here, despite Willis’ attention to the relationship between education and labor more generally, is the way that they are still conceived of as separate spheres. Students are students precisely because they are not yet workers. That is a role they are being trained for in the future. As Marc Bousquet observes in reflections of social struggles in the classroom (2008), there are also strains of thought that understand this relationship between labor and pedagogy differently, arguing that it not that students are training to become workers, but already are workers.[i] This is both in the more literal sense (students, particularly within universities settings, are already working part-time or even full-time jobs), but also that that there is labor involved in taking part in an educational process, labors that in various ways are integral to the working of the economy in a more general sense. This mirrors certain approaches to understanding the labor of teachers, particularly coming out of the Marxist tradition, that argue that their labor is not directly productive of value for capital. Thus the labors of education might indeed be understood as part of training future workers, but they are not an integral part of the circuits that constitute the economy proper.

While this might seem a rather abstract point to work from, it is important for consideration on several counts. What this line of thought points toward is the way that both students and teachers are engaged in what can be described of as a circuit of reproductive labor. The argument about the productivity of that reproductive labor becomes crucial in how it provides a way for thinking about a common and shared condition, a similarity across the places occupied by students and teachers. This is important for identifying a common ground or space from which to work from in the educational process. As David Harvie argues, it is quite common for teachers to regard the labor they are engaged in as “a ‘natural’ part of themselves” (2006: 9). Similarly it is quite possible for students to regard the labors they are involved in as students, or to support their existence as students, as part of forming themselves as future subjects who are capable of achieving forms of social recognition. In both cases the understanding of these labors as individualized, as separate from questions of broader economic questions, prevents connecting an understanding of these practices more broadly.

But let us now rise to the concrete, namely the way that thinking of the multiple positionalities within pedagogic labor creates a space for engagement. Or perhaps more fittingly how not thinking through these issues prevents the emergence of a shared engagement around them. This has been my most common experience, and precisely why I have been reflecting upon these concerns in such a fashion. The implicit assumption that carries through in relating to students is that they in fact are not workers. This is meant not just in a conceptual sense, but also literally. Take for instance how much time it is assumed that students have to engage in study outside of the classroom setting. If the student is enrolled within a full time program there is a certain allocations of hours that are said can be expected of them in terms of time spent on the module. I would argue that it’s fairly common knowledge that if one were to actually assign an amount of reading or work that took the given allocation of time seriously it would easily result in the crafting of assignments that would likely not be followed anywhere near to the level expected. The students simply would not accept it.

Rather there is something of informal levels of expectations regarding workloads and what can be expected from both sides that emerge through a constant push and pull of demand and response. These are the struggles of the classroom that David Harvie discusses in relation to the value they produce. The difficulty is that this often does not find formal acknowledgment. The formal expectations hold, at least in theory, except in instances where something intervenes formally to acknowledge different situations (for instance in the filing of an extenuating circumstances). The problem is that if there still exists the shared fiction of a certain level of conditions and expectations it becomes hard to engage with the reality of how things are actually working on the ground. This has been very much my experience, when I discuss with students the conditions they find themselves in and often how they are finding it difficult to cope with they workload precisely because of having to manage other commitments of work, family, and life more generally. In short figuring how to balance other commitments that are not exactly optional. In the UK this is a condition that has only been intensified with the introduction of tuition fees in recent years. This is also frequently paired with the realization that all the energy that is being put forth to attaining a degree very well might not actually translated into the kind of security or stability that it did previously. To borrow a phrase from one of the leaflets in California student protests, students realize that they’re working towards what could end up be keeping the same crappy jobs they already have rather than “advancing” in any meaningful sense. It could be argued that the debt produced by education is just as much a part of fitting the student into a larger labor process then the content of the education they are receiving.

Network Culture & Labor Pedagogies
In considering the relation between labor and pedagogy it is key to that while the institutional space in which formalized teaching occurs is indeed a prime space for how that relation is formed, it is far from the only site this occurs. This is what someone like Tiziana Terranova points toward in her exploration of labor involved in the functioning of what she describes at “network culture” (2004). For Terranova this means that various information technologies, from mass media to the Internet, interactive and participatory media, have congealed together into one integrated media system. This is not necessarily a new argument in itself. What is unique about the angle Terranova takes is in arguing that such an integrated network culture can only function through an immense supply of the “free labor” of participation, which can range anywhere from the building of websites and running of listservs, to generating content through social networking sites, to writing open source code. While Terranova was writing before the massive rise of web 2.0 to hegemonic cultural status, the argument she makes about the forms of labor necessary to sustain it is really quite prescient. Terranova’s analysis thankfully does not simply say that interactive media is run on exploited labor and therefore is bad in some sort of simplistic manner. Rather she is quite careful to point out the ambivalent nature of such activities, how they are point willingly taken on and enjoyed, but also exploited.

Given that one could say that for the vast majority of university students entering the college classroom today they have been engaged in some form of labor even if they have never held a waged job precisely because of the ubiquity of these modalities of free work in media networks and communication. But what is interesting about this is that these are precisely the forms of labor that are least recognized as labor. I have found this quite often in his discussing the dynamics of network culture and media labor in the classroom, that students are quite hesitant, and even resistant, to thinking about these forms of interaction as work. Perhaps it is that they would prefer to keep thinking of them as play, or as pleasurable activities, so as to not have to think about them as work. But that has the interesting effect that a good portion of how students come to experience themselves as workers is not recognized as such and cannot be because of that definition. The sociologist and pedagogical theorist Stanley Aronowitz, along with many others before him, has made a similar argument about the role of mass media in blocking off spaces for critical reflection about the conditions we find ourselves. For Aronowitz this constitutes “the major event of social history in our time” (1983: 468). Given when Aronowitz was writing it would be arguable that the intensification of media flows that Terranova describes only intensifies this same dynamic.

Educational theorist Peter McLaren argues that critical pedagogy should become a strategic and empowering response “to those historical conditions which have produced us as subjects, and to the ways we are inserted on a daily basis into the frontier of popular culture and existing structures of power” (1995: 21). Popular culture in this sense can be quite ambivalent, providing both points of discussion where abstract concepts can be rendered in more approachable form (for instance by explaining a argument in relation to a film, song, or other cultural production). But this approach too reaches a limit that one chafes against, and this is precisely the kind of limit formed by the pedagogy of a networked labor that disguises itself. Or perhaps it does not really disguise itself per se, as students will often admit in discussion that there is a good deal of sense in Terranova’s case, but nevertheless they would prefer to not think about it that way. Perhaps it is by refusing to see themselves, their free and enjoyed participation in networks of free labor as labor precisely because to think about the exploited element contained within it strips them of the agency and enjoyment they currently take in it.

This point towards what my teaching experience show me is key concern focus on, but one that can often be the most difficult: namely getting students to reflect critically on their own position, not just in the present, but also what they aspire to, what they desire, and why they desire what they desire. One of the difficulties in elaborating adopting a critical approach to the subject matter in question is how this can in itself, in the words of educational theorist Peter McLaren, be taken by the students as “a threat to their general ideological commitments. Critical pedagogy becomes, for many students, an uncomfortable and self-contesting exercise” (1995:19). While McLaren’s take on this I find in some ways to be quite fitting with experiences I have had in the classroom, it is perhaps also as much wrong as it is correct. What McLaren is arguing here is that critical educational approaches are threatening to the student’s ideological commitments, I have found this less so to be the case. My classroom experience has been marked less by student’s clinging to an ideological attachment to any particular relationship to business or management, and rather are threatened in so far that they fear a critical angle in such a way will undercut the prospects they have for a future becoming of their labor and living conditions. This is indeed a version of what McLaren calls a “self-contesting exercise” but not the exercise that McLaren describes. The attachment exhibited by students in my experience has not been of an ideological nature and for that reason cannot be engaged with as an ideological question, a condition that one the student has been informed of, thus relieved of their ‘false consciousness’ they will be relieved of. Rather it is this orientation to a self-in-potential becoming operating at an affective level, in the student’s experience of wanting to become more capable in acting in the world. For McLaren it is precisely the task of critical pedagogy as a form of intellectual labor that can have transformative effects by enabling a deconstruction of these affective investments. This is, as McLaren himself admits, a challenge for critical pedagogy that is “a daunting one at this time of historical amnesia” (1995: 25)

Pedagogy of the Imagination

To conclude, let’s return to good old Bill Hicks for a second. In the anecdote I opened with Hicks points to very much the question I wanted to think through, this relation between what one actually reads and thinks for, and how this related to pedagogy and labor. Hicks thinks he’s reading so that he can achieve a better and more secure standard of living. And the rise of mass education and support for it has been underpinned by much of the same sentiment, although it is questionable whether this will continue to be the case in the future. But in this anecdote Hicks also hints at another problem that important to thinking through my practice. In his trope of the “flying saucer tour” Hicks is playing on a common cultural trope of the southern United States being filled with people who are too stupid to know better, are culturally backward, and generally idiotic: in short an area filled with hicks. As Hicks description goes on he makes a joke about someone who would show up to a UFO landing with a shotgun. For Hicks this is the height of stupidity, the idea that when truly encountering the Other the only way to do so in by bringing along one’s weapons, perhaps desiring to treat it as some sort of intergalactic skeet shoot. The problem is here Hicks is engaging in the same process of Othering move with the people in the waffle house that he is mocking in their behavior. The population who abide in the territory covered in this flying saucer tour might be suggested to not know how to relate to an alien intelligence other than with the protection of their shotguns, but arguably Hicks is no more capable of meeting and appreciating terrestrial life that actually is directly in front of him.

At the risk of making too much out of a few Bill Hicks jokes, when we laugh with Hicks, when we laugh at the people in the waffle house, this risk recreating the kind of division and preventing a space of engagement. Perhaps the question for Hicks would have been how to laugh with the people he met in the waffle house rather than laughing at them. Perhaps the neoliberal restructuring of social relations acts to make this change in perspective seem impossible. If so what would the method of intervention, pedagogical or otherwise, to reverse these transformations? It is very much a form of what Chela Sandoval, taking up the work of Paulo Freire, talks about as methodology of the oppressed, or “a set of processes, procedures, and technologies for decolonizing the imagination” (2000: 69). In this context the imagination to be decolonized is the imagination that cannot perceive the forms of labor that form it as labor, or to recognize the intelligence held by students who hold on to such position precisely because it is in the interest of their self-conceptions to do so.

A postcolonial education, one that would exist in and after this liberation of the imagination, would help in the education of what Cornel West calls “a new kind of cultural worker” capable of exercising a “politics of difference” that will enable students to “interrogate the ways in which they are bound by certain conventions and to learn from and build on these very norms and models” (1990: 107). This is precisely what I’ve been trying to think through in this essay. In that sense I would agree with Peter McLaren when he suggests that the role of critical pedagogy is not to work toward some grand and pre-given ideologically endpoint but rather to “to explore other models of sociality and self-figuration that go beyond dominant language formations and social organizations”  (1995: 225). Where this actually ends up is hard to say exactly, but this is precisely the point. In the same way that challenge for Bill Hicks it to find it within himself to appreciate the intelligence of those around him on his UFO tour as he can for the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, this approach to critical pedagogy and its labor is based around keeping open a relationship to possible futures that emerge within the classroom, whatever they may be.

Aronowitz, Stanley (1983) “Mass culture and the eclipse of reason: the implications for pedagogy,” American Media and Mass Culture. Ed. Donald Lazere. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bousquet, Marc (2008) How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: New York University Press.
Giroux, Henry (1992) Border Crossings. New York: Routledge.
Harvie, David (2006) “Value-production and struggle in the classroom,” Capital and Class 88: 1-32.
Hicks, Bill (2001) Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks. Rykodisc.
McLaren, Peter (1995) Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern. London: Routledge.
Sandoval, Chela (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Terranova, Tiziana (2004) Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.
West, Cornel (1990) “The new cultural politics of difference,” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Eds. Russell Ferguson et al. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Willis, Paul (1982) Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

[i] While there are likely different thinkers who have explored this idea, I am most familiar with how these idea emerges out of an analysis of gendered labor within the feminist tradition and analyzing more dispersed forms of value production within post-Fordist capitalism and the knowledge economy.