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 SofĂ­a 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...