The Bloch Series #1: Peter Thompson on Bloch, Marxism and Religion

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Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain – Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.

 

Nyx: Ernst Bloch stands firmly in the Marxist tradition and was named the philosopher of the October Revolution. I’d like to begin by asking you why the Bolshevik event was ascribed to Bloch in this particular manner; what does this tell us about Bloch’s philosophy?

PT: When you say that he stands firmly in the Marxist tradition then I have to ask what you mean by the “Marxist tradition”. What he did once say was that – and I think this was a sort of nod to Marx’s own position on whether he was a Marxist or not — he didn’t know what he was but he did know that he wasn’t a non-Marxist. His attitude to being a Marxist was of a piece with his attitude to Marxism itself in that he was very firmly of the opinion that it should be just one theoretical approach alongside lots of others. He did, of course, give it primacy alongside those other theoretical and philosophical approaches but when you read Ernst Bloch you can see he is very clearly also laced with Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Spinoza and Hegel – of course, above all Hegel. He goes back to Aristotle and Avicenna and also stretches forward to look at what we mean when we talk about a socialist/communist future and how it will emerge from present circumstances interacting with future possibilities. Too much of the “Marxist tradition” was, for him, a closed and hermetically sealed system and he was in favour of “open system” Marxism. I think there is much to be learned from him in this regard.

As far as being the philosopher of the October Revolution, as Oskar Negt called him, then this too is less than straightforward. For thinkers of that generation, the October Revolution came along as a shining beacon at the end of the First World War and many threw themselves into supporting it while it was still fresh. If one thinks of the Arab Spring today and the waves of perhaps unrealistic optimism that it unleashed in many of us, then you get some sense of the mood of the period in addition, of course, this event — in Badiou’s sense — was led by an explicitly Marxist revolutionary party. It is questionable that at the time, however, Bloch was even a Marxist. He was still heavily influenced by both eschatological religious thought and, paradoxically, a sort of Nietzschean vitalism. If you read the first edition of Spirit of Utopia from 1918, that comes across very strongly. I think it is important to remember that the First World War had a sort of apocalyptic feeling to it for many intellectuals and for Bloch, the end of that war seemed like the beginning of something very new.

What we ended up with of course is what Tony Kaes has called a “shellshocked society”, especially Germany, where the failure of the revolution in Russia to spark over into central and western Europe led to the disaster which was fascism. At the same time the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution also meant that it descended into bureaucratic Stalinism in which the defence of the Soviet Union became the only international duty of the Communist movement. This subordination of hope and openness towards the possibilities of revolution in the future to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy went against everything that Bloch stood for. However, he also maintained a belief, until well into the 1950s that the Soviet Union needed to be defended, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t. We also have to remember that as a Jewish, Marxist, Communist intellectual in Germany in the 1930s he was forced to take sides in a way that is difficult to comprehend today. The question for critical Marxists back then was “how do I support the Soviet Union without supporting Stalinism?”

There is also a historical dimension to this in that Bloch did not want to be like those supporters of the French Revolution of the 18th-century who ran away as soon as the blood started to flow and, more importantly, when the establishment of the Bonapartist state replaced the revolutionary fervour of the initial period, and who then threw their hands up in horror. It was Hegel who maintained his support for the revolution even after it had descended into Bonapartism and he welcomed Napoleon as “the World Spirit on horseback”. Bloch did not go as far as that but there was a certain degree of congruence there. “Freedom comes on the tracks of a T-34” would be the 20th Century equivalent. After his years of exile in the United States — not in the Soviet Union you notice – he returned to Germany and took up the post of Professor of Philosophy in the GDR in Leipzig. Again, like many other leftist intellectuals of the time, he thought that the new GDR would be the better of the two states and that socialism might be realised on German soil for the first time. Of course, he soon fell out of favour with the Party as the state became more and more subordinated to the interests of what was now an entirely bureaucratized regime in Moscow.

Bloch’s Open System was diametrically opposed to Stalinisation and he soon became the leading philosophical figurehead behind a democratic communist movement in East Germany. So, to come back to the original question, Bloch is not so much the philosopher of the October Revolution as he is the philosopher of what the October Revolution might have become. Again this fits in philosophically with his general approach which sees history not simply as a series of events but as something which carries within it all sorts of lost opportunities, traces of unrealised potential and sparks and dreams of future possibilities. This is why he talks of the “ontology of not yet being” as the central philosophical expression of our time. In other words, the process of the fermentation of world history will throw up all sorts of strange constructs that have to prove themselves in the world and we have to try to come to terms with them within what he calls the “darkness of the lived moment”. As we experience today, it is not always easy to get it right.

Nyx: In volume one of The Principle of Hope Bloch discusses what he conceptualises as the cold and warm streams in Marxism. What does each stream indicate for Bloch, and how are they related?

PT: Of course this relates back to the previous question. For Bloch, cold stream Marxism was the way in which revolutionary and workers’ parties were forced to deal with “that which is possible” – Aristotle’s Kata to dynaton – whereas warm stream Marxism relates to “that which might become possible” — Aristotle’s Dynamei on. For example, in Heritage of our Times from 1934 he recognises that the Communist Party was partly responsible for the rise of fascism because it concentrated on cold stream questions and did not offer any sort of warm stream possibilities. You will find very little socio-economic analysis in his work because he took Marxist economic theory as a given. What he was more interested in was the way in which we understand both the utopian moments we constantly experience as well as our dreams for the future. The cold stream merely provided the solid ground in which our dreams could take root and flourish. Of course, this inability or unwillingness to deal with socio-economic questions is, for me, one of the greatest weaknesses in his work and I think a far greater appreciation of the dialectical interplay between the cold stream and the warm stream would have served him much better. It is also what we need today.

Nyx: Bloch draws attention to the fact that many Marxists after Marx took what the latter said of religion in a very narrow sense, distorting its significance. How does Bloch revive the depth of what Marx thought about religion?

PT: He often quotes Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge from 1843, where he says that we are not starting a new project, but realising the dreams which humanity has always had. Of course, given that human history had and still has always been influenced if not dominated by religious thought, then it is absolutely necessary to understand properly what religion actually stands for. The full quote from Marx is that religion is the heart of a heartless world and the sigh of the oppressed creature and that the flowers of religion and ideology have to be plucked from the chains of oppression so that the chains become clear. What Ernst Bloch does it is to look at nature of the flowers that we have used to hide our oppression and to see whether there are any blossoms there that can be used for both the breaking of chains as well as the establishment of a new and different world beyond exploitation and oppression.

Whereas most Marxists, and indeed most rationalists, tend to think you can just throw away the flowers, Bloch believes that they actually tell us something important about both our current psychology as well as our dreams for the future. He had no time for people who saw religious belief as a simple “delusion”. One always has to ask what form this delusion takes and why and, more importantly, whether it is actually useful in helping us to understand what we really want. For example, he says that the idea of the “withering away of the state” in Engels is actually a description of the cultural and psychological changes which have to happen in order for one to really be able to fully love ones neighbour. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” – which sums up Marx’s view (in the Gotha Programme) of what a future communist society would look like — is, in the end, a religious idea with a long history. What he also pointed out constantly was that the best thing about religion was that it created heretics. If we look in his book Atheism in Christianity, we find quite clearly that attitudes to Jesus separate into two different categories: those who see him as the son of God and are therefore on the side of authority and control through the church, and those who see him as the son of man and who are therefore on the side of man against authority and oppression. So, even though he was an atheist he was constantly asking how we might maintain the liberationist Christ impulse after the death of God.

We can see from this how his ideas about religion became very influential in the 1960s and 70s amongst liberation theologists. This is the reason, for example, that one finds his works translated more into Spanish than into English. Bloch saw religion, or rather the religious impulse, as belonging to the warm stream of the Marxist tradition. Rather than trying to destroy religion (rather than church authorities) in some sort of crazed hyper-rationalist frenzy, it was necessary to harness its power for the purposes of liberation. In Atheism in Christianity, he also points out that the descent of the workers movement into Stalinism was very much like the descent of the Christian message of liberation into the Catholic Church, in which the son of man was replaced by the son of God. The parallels are quite clear I think.

Nyx: Finally, you’re currently writing a monograph on the contemporary relevance of Marx; I wonder, though, what you think the contemporary relevance of Bloch is for Marxist theory.

PT: Openness.

Marxism, if it is to survive at all, must stop being a set of dogmas and must become an open system that is prepared to engage fully with all those interested in the abolition of oppression and ignorance. I am not saying that Marxism must give up the fight for ideological clarity in favour of some sort of post modernist theoretical egalitarianism — some truths are more equal than others, after all — but it must be prepared to admit that it might not have all the answers. I open my book on Marx with the statement that Marxism is the depleted uranium of political philosophy in that its hard-headed ideological clarity cuts through the cant and hypocrisy of bourgeois liberalism but at the same time it has no fire left to melt the frozen ground of the dialectic. The only way in which Marxism will be able to play a role in future political developments is for it to get out of the snowglobe of its own doctrinal discussions and engage with real people and their real concerns. In many ways we are back in 1934, where forces who speak dangerous rubbish, but speak it to the people — history, the first time as tragedy, the second time as Farage – are winning out over those who speak sense, but only about things. Anyone who has sat in endless Marxist conferences is well aware of the limitations of this.

Peter Thompson is Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies and Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on the history of the German workers’ movement, German politics and philosophy and recently co-edited, with Slavoj Žižek, The Privatization of Hope. Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, (Duke University press, 2013).

The Spectre of Engels

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By Mark Rainey & Steve Hanson, Manchester Left Writers, 2014

In the summer of 2009, archaeologists in central Manchester removed the tarmac and cobblestone surface of the Miller Street carpark, revealing cellar slum dwellings from the early industrial era. The excavation was carried out in preparation for the construction of One Angel Square – the new headquarters of the Co-op Group which now stands on the site. For a brief moment, through the work of digger and trowel, the cellars of Miller Street had returned to the landscape.

Friedrich Engels described this street, along with many others, in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working Class in England. The grinding poverty. The ill-ventilation and suffocating filth. The cramped, crowded living spaces. The mixture of human and animal life. And the mixture of human, animal and chemical waste. The text, in parts, becomes a visual and olfactory tour of early industrial Manchester.

Miller Street is mentioned twice as Engels compared the ‘old town’ with the ‘new town’. Each was as bad as the other. The old town was the remnants of pre-industrial Manchester. Its dilapidated buildings and unplanned streets were being used to house thousands and thousands of migrants in what Engels often likened to, ‘cattle sheds for human beings’. (1845/2005, p.90) The new town, a section of the city which included Miller Street, had the appearance of better housing. Yet, this ‘appearance’ merely concealed cheap construction, ill-repair and the use of cellars and back courts for housing. In the older and newer sections of the city, from Long Millgate to Miller Street, every space was filled, pressured and squeezed. These slums were a means to ‘plunder the poverty of the workers, to undermine the health of thousands, in order that they only, the owners, may grow rich’. (ibid, p.92) If the built environment was a means to wring further profit out of the lower classes, it was also constructed in such a way to conceal this fact. Streets extended outwards from the Exchange – the centre of the global cotton trade – cutting through the slums and factory districts to provide an uninterrupted link to the suburban, bourgeois areas. Urban space was so designed that businessmen could ‘take the shortest road through the middle of the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and left’. (ibid, p.86) These thoroughfares were essentially physical lines of capital that served to conceal the abject spaces at the very heart of this vast accumulation of wealth. In The Condition Engels provided a definitive account of the industrial city and its forms of exploitation, accumulation and concealment and it’s worth noting that this account prefigured the Chicago School’s concentric zone model of urban development by over eighty years, although Engels’ description is one of contained, crushing poverty rather than outward and upward mobility.

Returning to these observations may not offer much in terms of new insight. But alongside the return of the Miller Street slums in 2009 and our subsequent return to Engels’ text, we might pose another return: what if Engels were to return to Manchester? How might he re-access the city and, in particular, the contemporary city?

If Engels were to return, the Miller Street archaeological dig would have been a good point of entry. Here Engels would have encountered the familiar and the strange, the known and the new. And perhaps a new approach to his ethnography would have emerged from this. A return to Miller Street would not so much have been to visit a ‘site’ as it would have been to follow a ‘trace’. Rather than an isolated piece of heritage, the archaeological site would need to be reconsidered as a detail that set in motion a series of links – from early industrial Mancunian slums, to the Co-op Bank and the wider financial crisis of 2008. In contemporary Manchester, Engels would have to follow new lines of geography – ones that not only stretched to the suburbs, but also globally. And they do so at different speeds, from the car-commute to the nanosecond of receive-and-send information exchange. But some of this would come as no surprise to Engels. For most of his life he held a managerial position within a Dutch-German manufacturing company operating in the north of England. The international circulation of capital was already a lived reality.

To propose Engels’ return is not so far-fetched. He did return, in the flesh, in 1848, following the failed revolutions on the European continent. During his four-year absence the city had undergone significant change, both physical and political. There were slum clearances as Oxford Road Station replaced the ‘Little Ireland’ district. And in a hugely symbolic act, the city’s more liberal businessmen had erected the Free Trade Hall on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – connecting their campaign for free trade to the city’s radical democratic past. In all of this, the class divisions embedded in the city’s landscape were no longer so pronounced. Manchester had shifted from ‘black and white’ to ‘shades of grey’ as Engels’ biographer, Tristram Hunt, has put it. (2009) Engels recognised this. In his 1892 preface to the English edition of The Condition he wrote, ‘‘Little Ireland has disappeared, and the ‘Seven Dials’ are next for the list of sweeping away. But what of it? […] The bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class’. (2005, p.37) For Engels, the processes of concealment that he observed almost fifty years earlier were being extended. We suspect that if Engels were to make a return to Miller Street in 2009, or One Angel Square in 2014, he would easily familiarise himself with the uneven processes underpinning the city’s ‘regeneration’ and it would likely come as no surprise that despite Manchester’s much lauded redevelopment, the city remained a national leader in child poverty. (Child Poverty Map of the UK, 2012, p.9) However, it might need to be explained to Engels how history – and even dark history – is packaged and deployed in such processes. He would need to look no further than One Angel Square as the name of the building is a direct reference to Angel Meadow, the very slum district to which Miller Street once belonged.

Cellars, an archaeological site, One Angel Square. 1845, 2009, 2014. Early Industrial Manchester, the financial crisis, the collapse of the Co-op Bank. We don’t need to imagine Engels physically present to make these connections, to follow these traces. If we speak of ‘traces’ we can also speak of ‘spectres’. Both are terms attached to the work of Jacques Derrida. But here we enter risky territory. Derrida can lead us somewhere, but he can also lead us nowhere. In his work Specters of Marx he reminds us of the different, competing spectral forms of communism and capitalism – the always-yet-to-come and the repetition of the same. (1994) For Derrida, the text is paradigm and the yet-to-come is structured through traces that disrupt attempts to fix or contain meaning. Marxism declares its openly spectral form in the first line of The Communist Manifesto. It haunts capital and it refuses to let the spectre of capital appear as finished business.

Spectres are untimely and with their return we do not know if they are testifying to a living past or a living future. (1994, p.11) By invoking the spectre of Engels, we want to reckon with our past as well as our future, both of which are entwined with circuits of capital accumulation and forms of concealment. Yet, do to this effectively, we must move away from Derrida’s textual paradigm to more concrete accounts. We need to gather and follow through material traces, the literal debris of history – like the Miller Street archaeological site, with its links to industrial slums and One Angel Square.

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded that Marxism was not the only working-class movement to have direct links to the city. In 1844, while Engels was walking the Manchester slums with the Burns sisters, the Rochdale Pioneers opened their first shop in Rochdale, just north of the city. It operated according to principles laid out by the British socialist, Robert Owen, and is now regarded as the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement. However, the shop didn’t gain local traction until the collapse of the Rochdale Savings Bank in 1849 after which people began to see the co-operative as a safer alternative. A neat 160 years later, in 2009, in the midst of another financial crisis and as the excavation on Miller Street was preparing the way for One Angel Square, the Co-op Bank would acquire the Britannia Building Society. Like so many other financial institutions at the time, the Britannia was saddled with bad debt. In a move that mimicked more profit-driven rather than collectivist banks, the Co-op Bank, a subsidiary of the Co-op Group, had sought out struggling institutions to acquire and increase its own scale. Whether out of hubris or incompetence (or both), this would lead to the near-collapse of the Co-op Bank in 2013. With a £1.5 billion short-fall, the Co-op Bank would be taken-over by two American hedge funds, Aurelius and Silverpoint, with the Co-op Group only remaining a minority shareholder. The Co-op Bank was ‘rescued, capitalist style’, as the Wall Street Journal has said. (2013)

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded of the spectre of capital and its recurring cycles of boom and bust. In 1849 this provided an opportunity for the co-operative movement, but in 2014 only setback. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-operative. And its ‘ethical investment policy’ is now only once removed from wherever Aurelius and Silverpoint decide to circulate their capital, or whoever moves capital through them, or whoever they might sell their shares on to. It’s been emptied out and left as a sort of animated corpse.

1845, 2009, 2014. The cellars of Miller Street, an archaeological dig and One Angel Square. We have seen how one site can become a trace that allows us to sketch out the uneven and concealed geographies of capital and its repetitions of boom and bust that not only offer opportunities for alternatives but also, and most often, a chance for capital to re-assert itself. We have used the figure of Engels to help us think this through and have made reference to the work of Derrida. And here we wish to stake out our final claim. Derrida’s book, Spectres of Marx, was of its time. Written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it acted as a counter to the triumphant rhetoric of capitalism. Yet, for Derrida, the spectre of Marx is never realised. It only ever tails capitalism with constant critique. We have to move on from here. Capitalism is no longer triumphalist in our post-2008 world, but it remains increasingly pervasive, positioning itself as the corrective to the very problems it has initiated. As the Manchester Left Writers have stated, the left needs to ‘reoccupy the present and the future, actually, physically and politically’. (2014) And working through material traces, as a practice of writing, can be a small step in that direction.

 

References:

Derrida, J. Specters of Marx. (1994) Peggy Kamuf (trans). London: Routledge.

Engels, F. (1845/2005) The Condition of the Working Calls in England. London: Penguin Books.

Hunt, T. (2009) The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. London: Penguin.

Manchester Left Writers. (2014) Broadside 001: The State of Scripts. http://manchesterleftwriters.wordpress.com/broadsides/

Wall Street Journal. ‘Co-op Bank Rescued, Capitalist Style’. 4 November, 2013.

 

 

 

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Interview with the 7×8 Kuratoren Collective

Nyx, a Noctournal interviews the 7×8 Kuratoren collective.  7×8 is an international group of curators and artists formed in 2013 in the cities of Vienna and Budapest.  Responses are provided by Ya’el Santopinto, Roberta Palma, Ashlee Conery,  Kimi Kitada, Ho Leng, and Jordana Franklin.

7x8curators.blogspot.co.uk

7X8 Kuratoren is a multi-national collective of curators formed during an 8 week project exploring the contemporary art scene in Vienna and Budapest.  These 8 weeks are now long past, but as a collective you still  ‘wish to continue to examine the edges of contemporary curatorial practice’. What are these edges? More  specifically how do you view the changing set of relations between curators and audiences, curators and artists, curators and art spaces?

For 7X8, curation is itself an endlessly evolving set of relationships. It is a practice set, always and inextricably, by the shifting horizons against which it finds itself. For 7X8, these horizons are marked by deinstitutionalization, increasingly informal gallery structures, and the unstoppable and widespread dissemination of curating as a method across disciplinary boundaries. As a collective entity, 7X8 has worked to explore these shifting edges through event- and exhibition-based explorations of political activism, radical archival practices, public realm interventions and other interfaces with music, street art, collecting practices and participatory models. In the face of the dissolution of traditional roles, it is the unique responsibility of the curator to be constantly engaged in the reinvention of her practice. She may be called upon to become a translator, interpreter, critic, activist or archivist at any moment. This demand to be a nimble practitioner signals, for 7X8, the growing relevance of collective curatorial practices. A changing horizon demands a multiple set of approaches, a process that embraces and makes visible conflict and dissent, and a series of iterative, laboratory-style experiments on the ever-expanding boundaries of curatorial practice.

(Ya’el Santopinto)

 

Recently a visitor to the Perez Art Museum, Miami, smashed a $1 million Ai Weiwei vase in apparent protest at the gallery not showcasing  local artwork. Do you  think the protest raised important issues or was it more reactionary and sensationalist?  In your experience of the contemporary art scenes in Vienna and Budapest, what were the relations between the cities, venues and local  artists?

Whether it was a sensational act or an extreme action, coming from a deep discontent, it raises a couple of questions impossible to ignore for art observers. To run over some of them, this act of destruction and, at the same time, imitation, makes me think that maybe museums are often perceived like cathedrals, where artworks represent idols, something sacred and untouchable that have to be contemplated. Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases expresses the willingness to overtake this belief, even when we look at ancient art.  But, as Ai Weiwei’s own photo series ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ is said by the artist ‘to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm’, the protester unwillingly provokes a short circuit by protesting against protest art.

This makes me think of what happened last week at the Uffizi, Florence. A young Spanish boy got naked in a sort of adoration in front of Botticelli’s Spring, then he asked to the policeman if someone had recorded him. In a superficial and overstated way, this guy raises the question: how are we expected to react in front of art? The press underlines the sensationalistic and economic aspect of art in order to catch people’s attention. A couple of months ago, millions of people went crazy for Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring exhibited here in Italy, just because of its popularity. Does anyone know that you can see Caravaggio’s works for free inside churches in Rome? We have lost the safety-critic distance from art, and is not an easy task for museums to build a good relation with territory and represent, at the same time, the globalised art world. Vienna is a good example in this practice, because the city has an entire district dedicated to museums and art spaces. It means that, from the Mumok to the Quartier21, big exhibitions of international artists as well as temporary projects made by young curators could find their own space. The Museum Quarter is placed in the city centre, so its also a public space. Nonetheless, not every city has the chance to dedicate this amount of funding and spaces to art. In Budapest, for example, public institutions are suffering for lack of resources and, I had the feeling that, this encourages non- institutional spaces to take care of the local art scene, increasing art activities and creating a more direct relationship with local artists and citizens

(Roberta Palma)

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                                                        Letting My Hair Grow.  Marlene Haring (credit).

Should an Ai Weiwei vase ever be valued at $1 million?

Ai Weiwei’s colourful Han Dynasty vases are not worth a million dollars. With only a little digging one discovers that the police invented the number with the help of museum security staff. The number was a placeholder required for making a conviction and the curatorial staff were not actually consulted for this early evaluation. Leann Standish, deputy director at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, where the vase was smashed during an ongoing retrospective of Ai Weiwei’s work, confirmed that ‘they will most likely determine that the vase is worth much less’. Ai Weiwei himself commented to the press that the million-dollar price tag was ‘a very ridiculous number’. The New Yorker’s Ben Mauk, raised a valuable point in relation to the event: art critics/media used to be focus on the art, the introduction of new styles, schools and themes by contemporary artists. Now, he suggested, ‘it is the phenomenon of art as investment that seems to interest readers’ and therefore garners the attention of the media. The value of art is indisputably abstract, fabricated by a series of rumours and well-placed validations by those in the upper echelons of the art world. The art market has successfully run for hundreds of years without the checks and balances one might expect for deals ranging in the millions. Most have come to accept, and even revel in, the mystery of it all. However, Mauk suggests a truly distressing cultural indifference toward the value of art in society. That at present the public expresses little interest in what art commemorates about our lives and notices only what it earns in our lifetime.

(Ashlee Conery)

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                                                         Very Expensive Push Broom. Mark Wagner

7×8 Kuratoren was formed, in part, in Vienna. In your  opinion, what is the most important legacy of the Vienna Actionists?

In 1970, after his cruel action Zerreissprobe, Gunter Brus was compelled to interrupt his auto-destruction project, because it became too much for his family and himself. Then, he found the practice of the Bild-Dichtung (an ensemble of poetry and image) as the natural continuation of his art. For Austrian art history, it wasn’t easy to recognise and officialise the importance of Viennese Actionism, but today, it represents an unquestionable – and sometimes cumbersome – historical condition for contemporary artists. Anyway, we should consider that contemporary art has inherited the radicalism of Actionism together with its limits. Today it is still not easy to show a video of Gunter Brus without any shocking reaction, while we are more comfortable with photos and stills images. I would say that one of the legacies of Actionism is the importance of gesture and the subversive value of action (theatrical and ritual) in art. Gesture – unlike language – has the ability of showing us our life, without the safe distance, lies or interpretation that are used to filter words and images. Viennese Actionists used this feature, together with body exploration, and pushed it to the extreme limit of audience expectation. Contemporary artists have now to reflect on what part of this drastic art could still survive in our society. We still have lots of taboos, but we are also surrounded by pornography, we are accustomed to be shocked by art, but we still need to find everyday stronger impulses to make us reflect on society and sexuality. Actionism represents an historical requirement for artists about where to move on to and discover new modalities of communication – overtaking and reflecting on what today is not a scandal any more.

(Roberta Palma)

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                                                        Touch Cinema. Valie Export. 1968

The Hungarian artist and Bauhaus Professor, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, stated that ‘the experience of space is not the privilege of the gifted few, but a biological function’. In view of this, to what extent is curatorial practice the production and arrangement of the experience of space by a privileged and gifted few? And do you think that the everyday, biological experience of space is somehow excluded from the qualified space of art?

Curatorial practice can be defined by a number of key elements such as the audience, space, and artwork. The constructed space of an exhibition compels the viewer to engage immediately in the biological function of “looking” and other senses become secondary in that instant. The production and arrangement of contemporary art often becomes an experience for the “privileged and gifted few” when some exhibitions create a dialogue with art historical precedents, establish a complex conceptual framework, or the interpretive wall text is written in academic language and contemporary art jargon. In this sense, the biological experience of the space is shared among the viewers, but the levels of perception and comprehension may vary depending on the personal lens of the individual.

Recently, as museums have shifted focus more heavily on the audience and attracting a wider public, a number of strategies have attempted to address the limited demographic of the museum-going public, or the so-called privileged few. In mainstream museums over the past several years, the influx of large-scale participatory works – Carsten Höller: Experience at New Museum (2011-2012); Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012); Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored infinity rooms at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2012) and David Zwirner Gallery (2013) – prompts viewers to interact with an artwork on a full-body, more physical level. In light of this trend toward participation and interactivity, the biological experience of space becomes a collective experience and in a way, democratizes the space and provides a point of accessibility for the larger public. Moreover, by utilizing social media platforms, some museums  have incorporated voices of the audience into the didactic wall panels to establish a relatable, intelligible tone from their fellow visitors. These strategies are by no means a solution to expanding the museum-going audience, but they are an effective step in the direction of creating an open and inclusive space for experiencing contemporary art.

(Kimi Kitada)

Q5Kimi-Kusama(credit-Courtesy Steven Meidenbauer(www.thisiscolossal.com)
Yayoi Kusuma.  Courtesy of Steven Meidenbauer (www.thisiscolossal.com)

Given that the 1920s avant-garde –particularly the Russian Constructivists – attempted to incorporate art into everyday life, and thus attempted to repeal the bourgeois conception of art as an autonomous domain- a conception active since roughly the French Revolution -, and given that this attempt failed, since the everyday life of commodity consumption ultimately acculturated art to the imperatives of mass production and exchange, have we come full circle? That is, following Adorno, might we best assert an autonomous place for art, even if, as Adorno also says, this is a somewhat fetishistic gesture?

Your question reads of a familiar text from the content of Adorno’s letters to Benjamin from 1935 to 1938.  Such a distinction between an autonomous and contemporary conception of art could be perceived as a political gesture by artists, whose legacies harnessed art-making associated with their relationship to society.  Quoting from Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, “[…] the map is closed, but the autonomous zone is open. Metaphorically it unfolds within the fractal dimensions invisible to the cartography of Control.” Hakim’s idea clearly defines the Bauhaus school, which drew modernistic values from Russian constructivism, to the manufacturing of ordinary homeware products, to German architectural style – ‘the international style’ as we know. It’s functional, pragmatic and minimalistic quality is still being implemented in most of the world’s apartment blocks and public housing blueprints. The consumer culture will never cease; it is the heart of our civilization now. We cannot escape the fact that we need to consume everyday, whether it is for basic needs or one’s superficial lifestyle. I do not agree that art in everyday life has come to a standstill after post-constructivism, which in turn, the 21st century has produced a stewardship of contemporary artists whose works are not just representational but ideological and intervention based. Of course, the reproduction of art or medium used today is neither new, in terms of techniques and craftsmanship, nor the appreciation of art is only meant for the bourgeoisie. However, if we were to look at Takashi Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton, which won him ‘fame and notoriety as an artist who blurs the line between ‘high art’ and commercialism’, one may speculate that artistic practices are driven by popular culture. We could argue that the polysemy of art has evolved the commodity into its own realm of popular culture by artists –Andy Warhol, the Bauhaus School, Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki (just to name a few)– who had/ have the means of an atelier system. The expropriation of art contains no boundaries from a productionist’s consciousness to the epoch of a consumer society. As Adorno wrote in his letter, ‘The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness’. This extraordinary fecundity of the commodity-self in art stands as testimony for the desire of our social transition as the modernity-self – whose indulgence of being ‘cool’ is in subsuming art in the seduction of capitalism.

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” as Andy Warhol famously said. “Making money is art and working is art and having good business is the best art.”

(Ho Leng)

Q6mel-credit-jeffkoonsversailles.com

‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’. (www.jeffkoonversailles.com)

What’s more important during an exhibition launch: viewing  artwork, networking or neither?

In a special issue of the journal PUBLIC devoted to the study of “scenes,” author Alan Blum posits whether a city can have a thriving arts scene in the absence of local artistic production. Blum’s question compels us to consider the role of art in creating personal attachments.

As a gallery director, I believe that both networking and art viewing are integral to a successful launch (at least in part because connections alone do not cover the gallery’s overhead.) And while I would hesitate to create a hierarchy, I believe it’s worth noting that people are drawn to openings by the promise of one of these two activities and upon arrival, will often experience both.

However, we also must ask what types of connections are being formed at exhibition launches. Two Toronto-based artists recently endeavoured to stimulate conversations that go beyond the pleasantries passed at art openings by converting the front room of their home into a gallery space. Visitors are greeted by their warm hosts, a cup of tea, and a comfortable seating area, all of which provoke longer and deeper discussions than those that occur at formal launches. Consequently, it would appear that while both are important, more could be done to better facilitate the networking component.

(Jordana Franklin)

Q7Jordana-(credit-chriswalshopening)

Chris Walsh Opening.

Cultural Studies Occasional #2: Steve Hanson

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In the second of our Cultural Studies Occasional series, Nyx catches up with Steve Hanson. Steve is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and the University of Salford. We forego the usual interview format with Steve providing a sort of monologue about what he terms an ‘idiosyncratic geography of cultural studies’. It weaves together place and personal biography with the figures and texts of cultural studies: Hoggart, Hall, Williams and Said via Halifax, Hereford and New Cross.

My journey through British Cultural Studies is also a real set of journeys in Britain. The subject is meshed with some of the places I have inhabited – there’s a geography of British Cultural Studies which is crucial to how I think through the subject. But also, I can’t think of British Cultural Studies as an isolated island either. It is wrapped up with the history of British art schools, for instance, and this is crucial to the way I think about it and this island I live on. It ties in with other ‘schools’ and traditions, and continental movements and philosophies, and ‘diasporic’ cultures.

For instance, I worked in Halifax for a long time and E.P. Thompson once lived there. I discovered that Ralph Rumney, later of the Situationist International, who lived with Pegeen Guggenheim, ran away from his strict clergyman father in Halifax and lived with Thompson there for a while. He’d been grassed on for getting de Sade out of Halifax library. Later, he went to Paris and met Debord. That little biographical detail is such a massive historical juncture for me. There’s still such a lot which remains unexplored in relation to those figures. And personally, I think of the little places they were from, or inhabited, as a kind of map of my own brain and ‘experience’, to use a very Raymond Williams term. Provincial, often grim Halifax. I spent so much time there, but there’s this strong crossroads of the British left and art school traditions, moving into Paris and the avant garde and anti-art movements like the S.I., and they can be accessed by thinking about these brief moments in these supposedly ‘nowhere’ places.

Jeff Nuttall was around there too, in Halifax, involved with Dean Clough, and in Bradford and Todmorden. For me, the shifts in British art school education can’t be viewed as separate from the shifts in British Cultural Studies or the arrival of ‘theory’ from the continent. Jeff taught me briefly. E.P. Thompson was travelling all around those places as a WEA [Workers Education Association] lecturer – another part of the story and geography, the WEA – and he tried to unearth old communists in the area. But Ralph Rumney in E.P. Thompson’s house, a brief time in one place, speaks to all those larger narratives. Someone should make a film about those brief days, in that house. Can you imagine? We could even start to cast it, to pick actors. Apparently, when Rumney was on the run from Peggy Guggenheim, Jacques Lacan had him ‘sectioned’ to allow him to escape, and gave him a greenhouse to paint in. Just think about all that.

I went to art school – actually I went several times, I seemed to need it – that was the only way to get time to develop for us after school. It was factory work or supermarket work, or sign on and sign up for a course. Or those seemed to be the only options then and there. By a total coincidence, I eventually ended up teaching in the art school in Hereford for five years – as a Cultural Studies lecturer – where Jeff Nuttall was a student, he actually ended up marrying his painting teacher from Hereford. So much of that landscape speaks to my understanding of British Cultural Studies, but also how for me I’ve fused my understanding of it with some perhaps more art school influenced and continental things.

I moved to Abergavenny and commuted to Hereford, because Jeff’s old jazz band still played Sunday gigs there. And I wanted the ‘otherness’ of Wales if I’m honest. I realised shortly after relocating, that down the road were Raymond Williams’s birth and burial places, Pandy and Clodock church. A friend of mine, John Percival, had Williams’s own copy of Long Revolution, it had his sticker in the front. He brought it out to the pub once. The local bookshop were given some of his volumes to sell, after Williams died in 1988, and John had picked them up for pence. It was just ordinary, there and then.

Williams begins ‘Culture is Ordinary’ with Hereford Cathedral and the Mappa Mundi which were only a short walk from the site I taught at in Hereford. [1] So I used to give students ‘Culture is Ordinary’, after the entry on ‘Culture’ from Keywords, and walk them over to the cathedral to read the opening sections of it. It was one way to try to make what they were getting immediately relevant. It was still possible to get a bus towards Wales from there, but not really down the same route. The Hereford new road had eclipsed the Hereford old road, there’s an old bridge and new bridge too now, and the road speaks volumes about Williams’s concerns and his rather clunky terms like ‘mobile privatisation’. I did walk the old road many times though, thinking about the journey in ‘Culture is Ordinary’. The new and old road stand as a metaphor for the old left Cultural Studies practitioners, and the next generation, coming through via Stuart Hall, and those increasingly concerned with cultural speed-up and media. Of course, there’s a shift away from the dogmatic Lukacsian focus on ‘class consciousness’ here too, and towards a more flexible, yet no less left wing take on culture, in the new left’s turn to Gramsci.

As you can see, the way I think is often via these almost occult inner maps, via the places and details and biographies and historical accidents I know about. What I am saying here is that I have my own Mappa Mundi of British Cultural Studies, and the territories it is linked to. Williams drops that arcane object, the Mappa Mundi, into the start of ‘Culture is Ordinary’ very purposefully. He’s making a new, big map of Culture. These maps have to be, like the Mappa Mundi, redrawn constantly, and they will always be perhaps twenty percent objective and eighty percent subjective.

I got the train from Abergavenny to Hereford most days for five years, to teach Cultural Studies in the art school, and the signal box flashes past – it must be the box from Border Country, there’s only one – but what one notices is that it’s full of electronic lights and wiring now. This obscure box and the new road to Hereford became key to the way I thought about borders and the way they’d shifted, and therefore it altered my relationship to Williams’s work.

But I risk looking like a provincial bumpkin here. The link between Williams’s Border Country and Edward Said’s work, thinking through borderlands and culture and conflict, is stitched into this landscape too. I’m not sure who it was – it might have been Jonathan Rutherford – who said that Said’s being a New Yorker and Palestinian, everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, inside some important discourses and yet in so many ways just anybody, mapped on to Williams’s subject position, and my own.

When I got to Goldsmiths to do an MA in 2003, I discovered there was a Richard Hoggart building and that Hoggart had inscribed books in the library, such as the hardback copy of McLuhan’s Counterblast – I guessed that it was sent back to Goldsmiths during his UNESCO days – and all of this seemed right somehow, and somebody maybe better take that book out of the library now.

That book and place seemed to be further important points on this map of mine. And of course McLaren and Westwood were there and King Mob and Linton Kwesi Johnson, et cetera. The place is also framed in so many ways by British Art school genealogies, as well as genealogies from territories geographically off the island. If you talked to Les Back, I bet he’d take you straight to Croydon from here.

None of my monologue really says much that’s substantive about the work of any of those thinkers. But the key thing I want to communicate here is that it is through ordinary people and places that I think about the thinkers. I don’t think through these places via supposedly ‘lofty’ theorists, and of course there’s something of the so- called ‘inversion’ of Hegel done by Marx in this, even though Hegel isn’t quite hung all the way round to dry.

All my work has since moved away from the ‘Cultural Studies’ teaching I used to get paid for, and still sometimes do – in art schools specifically – and into looking at small towns and what used to be called Community Studies.

I miss teaching Cultural Studies in art schools all the time actually. But what I wanted to communicate here was the perhaps idiosyncratic way I think through these traditions, rather than saying anything about the way the subject is moving, which I’m sure others can do better in any case. I know that British Cultural Studies is being refigured, friends of mine like David Wilkinson are rolling their sleeves up to do exactly that.

But all of this is why, for me, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ has not really been eclipsed as a starting point for British Cultural Studies. I gave a seminar on it last week. I could also talk about the significance of 1958, the year it came out, alongside other developments, and how I map that out, but that’s maybe for later. I think that ‘Culture is Ordinary’ is still the best starting point for learning about or working in British Cultural Studies. And of course it needs to be gendered, coloured through, rendered complex – and it has been, actually.

‘Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact’, and through all the changes to come, through all the nuancing and re-figuring of the subject, which has to happen, we must hold to that, even if everything else has to go. What I’ve said here has tried to exemplify the ordinariness of thinking required to do that.

[1] The Mappa Mundi is a 13th Century map inscribed on calf-skin in Hereford Cathedral. It depicts the known and the imagined world.

Cultural Studies Occasional #1: David Wilkinson

Cultural-Studies-Occasional_1

This is the first of our occasional interview series exploring cultural studies research and practice outside Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies.  Nyx met up with David Wilkinson, a Research Assistant at the University of Reading.  In this interview David calls for a return to cultural materialism, particularly that of Raymond Williams, and discusses his own research into sexuality and punk.  

The interview was conducted by Mark Rainey and took place in a ‘pop-up’ bar in front of Gypsy Hill station, London.

Mark Rainey: This is a short question – how do you define cultural studies?

David Wilkinson: Cultural studies is, or it should be, a political intervention by left intellectuals on questions of culture.  That is its history and this is a history that I don’t think is looked at with enough detail nowadays.  If the political commitment isn’t there, then it is not cultural studies, really.  I also think that it’s original aims of democratising culture and making it relevant are still crucial to a definition of cultural studies.

MR:  It’s the political aims that define it for you.  But what are those political aims?

DW: The analysis of culture as ‘lived’ within society.  The analysis of how it is economically produced.  And the connection between culture and consumer capitalism.   That’s a massive aspect of cultural studies.  There is also all the advances in looking at the questions of race, gender, sexuality and class and of course colonialism and post-colonialism.

MR: You’re currently working in a history department.  Can you give a brief outline of your research?

DW: We find refuge where we can, don’t we?  I always liked history, but I never thought I would be a ‘history academic’.  I’m not really.  I’m doing cultural studies.

I’m working as a research assistant for a historian who is writing a history of punk.  But my angle on it is sexuality and punk.  I did my PhD on the post-punk era and the New Left and libertarian-left strand in post-war British culture.   It was on how this strand fell into the post-punk moment –  what the politics of it all were, at the moment that Thatcherism, new conservatism and the new right were on the rise and what the hell kind of thing came out of all that, if you like.  There were a lot of issues coming out of that, including class and gender.  But I never got around to sexuality, so that is where I’ve got to now.

MR: You’ve said you’re doing cultural studies and that cultural studies is defined by its political aims.  What are the political aims of doing research on sexuality and punk?

DW: It’s almost a subcultural question, that.  Where is counter-culture now and where is gay subculture?  Where do they find themselves and what are the issues confronting them?  What are the political and cultural issues?  You can find answers to those questions by looking back at punk.  It’s quite a critical moment for gay subculture and politics in Britain and broader counter-culture, if you like.  The cross-over is interesting and so are the sensibilities that are floating around in both.

MR: So looking at punk can help inform political and cultural practices today?

DW: Yes, I think so.  If you’re interested in gay culture today and counter-culture – whether that be music or whatever types of cultural dissident may be tied to youth culture, then by looking back at that moment you can learn a lot.  That includes everything from the politics of the music to the media discourses surrounding it and the way it was produced.  That’s what cultural studies should be really – a holistic approach.  And crucially, why it matters today.

MR: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by a ‘holistic approach’?

DW: One of the best legacies of cultural studies was to question, via various philosophical, political and theoretical means, the idealist notion of culture as separate from politics, social life and economics.  If we want to understand culture, as a human activity, we cannot separate it from all of those things.  What I also like about cultural studies’ past is that it preserves the utopian side of that idealist notion of culture, but without its downside.  Culture becomes potentially liberating, in some way.  Cultural studies had the best of both worlds in that sense.  It may have lost some of that now – but it’s still worth building on.

MR: Are there particular avenues of cultural studies that are important for your research?

DW: Cultural materialism is especially important and is due a resurgence.  Especially the later work of Raymond Williams.  The word ‘cultural materialism’ is deployed a lot although it is often removed from its original context.  I think Williams still has a lot to teach us.  The cultural materialist side gets left behind and cultural studies would gain something by re-assessing that moment rather than relegating it to history.  There are a lot of cultural studies courses, for sure, where you get modules that give a history of the discipline.  But so much of that involves talking about these people in order to safely relegate them to the past.  I think it’s a time for a real reappraisal of that history.

I think cultural studies took a bit of a turn for the worse from the 1980s onwards.  Part of that is the humanist elements of it falling away.  A lot structuralist, post-structuralist and post-modern theory is anti-humanist in origin and I think you lose a lot when that happens.  I also think there is a direct correlation between the rise of anti-humanism and the rise of neo-liberalism, although that is obviously a massive question and there is no room for it here.

MR: You’ve done an MA and PhD in literature and work in a history department, but practice cultural studies.  The term ‘interdisciplinary’ seems apt.  What do you make of it?

DW: It’s a funny one.  It muddies the waters a little bit.  It’s a convenient way of not discussing the history of cultural studies.  You can say, ‘We’re doing a bit of this, this and this’ but it’s a kind of re-inventing the wheel.  Cultural studies was born of that and that’s why it makes sense to talk about it now in terms of interdisciplinarity.  But I think there are different politics implied in cultural studies as a discipline and the way that word is bandied about now.  And I don’t think they are coming at it from the same angle really.

MR:  To return to an earlier point, the question of the political aims of cultural studies raises further questions about cultural studies and the institution.  Cultural studies is an institution and there are various versions of that institution in various universities.

DW: Again, that’s Williams, isn’t it?  The institutional question is vital.  University management’s tolerance of cultural studies is only going to last as long as cultural studies courses reshape themselves to say: ‘If you do this you can go into the media, advertising, PR, marketing.  You can set yourself up as a cultural entrepreneur because you know the cultural market.  You can do cultural semiotics and read culture trends.  You can whip a quick book out to help someone else.  You can completely betray the politics of cultural studies’.  I’ve seen courses starting to re-market themselves.  And I’m not castigating them because I understand the pressures that are upon them.  There is a neoliberal pressure to instrumentalise.  Too often, when faced with such pressures, academics will say ‘I’m an intellectual and don’t need to justify myself.  Civilised societies have intellectuals’.  Well, yes and no.  We need to think about what you are doing outside the academy.  We really do.  That’s something I’ve realised while doing my research and from my mentors:  ‘What broader relevance does this have?’.  It’s a valuable political-social critique of how we have lived, how we do live and how we might live.

They can and they will turf us out if we are not careful.  There are already far less cultural studies departments then there used to be.  They closed down the CCCS and that was clearly politically motivated.  It makes you think it might be time to do an AC Grayling, (although in a far less horrible, elitist way!) and think of alternative institutions.  That’s a very Williams’ theme.  There isn’t just the dominant.  There is the alternative and oppositional.  And institutions are a part of that.  You can build your own.   They might not be as powerful at first, but if you build momentum, they might be.

Another thing about cultural studies and the wider world and political movements relates to Alan Sinfield.  He’s a literary critic who carries on that tradition of cultural materialism and works in queer theory (and talks a lot of sense to queer studies).  He makes the point that cultural studies was once a part of the broad left in Britain that has taken a severe beating over the past 30-35 years.  Consequently cultural studies is quite stranded and isolated now.  It needs to make links with new political movements that are arising in opposition to austerity.  I’ve seen that happening and long may it continue.  We need more of it.

Issue 9: Vermin CfC

Issue 9: Vermin – Call for contributions

Issue 9: Vermin CfC

 

Rats. Cockroaches. Locusts. Plagues and infestations. Vermin are the unwanted, the weeds of the animal kingdom, the exterminable. They spread infection and disease and pose a threat to human life. For its ninth issue, Nyx, a noctournal seeks contributions that address the concept of vermin.

How can we think about the construction of vermin, particularly in relation to the human and social world?

Vermin. Those noxious elements, those patrons of the gutter, those outsiders, those parasites, those eyesores of an otherwise secure and vindicated environment. As the uncontrollable, as social scoundrels, vermin operate in those dark places, underground, seeking upward mobility or simply to feed off discards of the ethically sanitized. For that vermin carry the potential to cause harm. Vermin invest and infect the purity of the biological body, the harmony of the body politic. The rats, the underclass, the unproductive.

And yet, vermin spring from the very way in which the un-vermin live and think. Vermin strive on waste of productivity and are constituted by processes of social verminization, that is, by the un-vermin. To be vermin, then, is a state, a relation, a way of being far from inoculated from other states, other relations, and other ways of being.

We welcome submissions in the form of academic essays, pieces of journalism, fiction and experimental writing, images or other pieces of visual art.

Nyx, a noctournal is a print and online publication of critical theory, radical politics and art. It is peer reviewed by a collective of young researchers, activists and theorists and is based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Brief proposals in abstract form, of no more than 500 words/3 images, should be sent along with a brief biography to noctournal@gmail.com by 31/10/13

In final form, written contributions will not exceed 2,500 words, and visual contributions should not exceed 6 images. All images submitted should be 300dpi resolution.

Ancient workshop - J Burton

Nyx Blog: Call for Contributions

Nyx a Noctournal invites contributions to its online platform.

Nyx, a Noctournal is a peer-reviewed print/online platform of cultural theory, politics and art. After the publication of our recent seventh issue this summer, we’re planning to also develop and share new work and theory on our open-access online platform, nyxnoctournal.org, with a weekly series of articles, polemics, and reviews.

Whilst print is beautiful, online and open-access platforms hold great potential for sharing work with a growing network of new cultural theorists, activists, and art practitioners. And whilst we can’t pay for work, we can ensure it is edited, supported and shared with an international web of thinkers and graduate researchers. Sound good? If you have ideas, work, images, research, recorded lectures or events you’d like to share, or have suggestions about content, email noctournal@gmail.com.

We hope to begin a new season of the intriguing, irksome, conspiring and unusual over the coming months.

Many thanks,

Nyx a noctournal.

Image by Liz Rosenfeld
Video

Issue 8: Skin Extract, Finn Jackson Ballard & Liz Rosenfeld

Transmasculinities, by Finn Jackson Ballard, published in full in Nyx, a noctournal, Issue 8: Skin.

FJB

Photograph by Liz Rosenfeld

‘While photographing the calendar subjects, I was also preparing for my long-awaited chest surgery. In fact, I left Berlin the very morning after the calendar launch party, and was in hospital by that evening, pre-surgical lines drawn upon my shaven chest by the doctor who would perform the operation. I had been occupied with the project, of course, but had also documented something of the simultaneous excitement, anxiety and tinge of melancholy that the upcoming event inspired in me (‘8 weeks before chest sur- gery, August 2010’). Upon the sudden cessation of all that energy involved in the calendar preparation, I felt a curious calm which certainly helped me to deal with the nerves of surgery, going under anaesthetic for the first time, and making an irreversible decision – although I had no qualms about my decision to have the operation. My partner, Liz, accompanied me to hospital, and during the night before my surgery photographed me preparing for the next morning (‘Finn the night before surgery’ by Liz Rosenfeld). I am very glad that she took this series of pictures and that we have them now for posterity, and I think that they capture the mood of that moment perfectly. Liz photographed my reflection, which I think was not only a documentary method but also a way for us to abstract the situation through a further layer of distance. This was the first time that Liz had seen my chest bereft of layers of clothing or of surgical vests – ‘binders’ which flatten the chest – and I suppose that I was not ready then to face her or the camera. We also ended up inadvertently referencing one of our mutual favourite artists, Nan Goldin, who often photographed her subjects in mirrors, although I don’t think she usually appeared in the resultant images. I took more photos than ever before in my post-surgical delirium and delight (‘One week after chest surgery, October 2010’) and indeed I was delighted when one of those ended up in an article featuring contemporary photographers with the title ‘Children of Nan Goldin.’1 It seemed that I had come a long way: being open about my own transgenderism, achieving the surgery I had wanted for many years, and then being able to stand on the fringes of the world occupied by the (queer) artists whom I most admired.

Although the world’s awareness of transmen is increasing constantly, with the fame of Buck Angel, Chaz Bono, Balian Buschbaum and others, I suppose that many of us still have a drive simply to be represented and to increase visibility of all the multifarious ways that we configure (and often reconfigure) our gender identity. That’s also why my favourite self-portrait is the one of me doing up a tie and wearing pink lacy underwear at the same time (‘Getting Dressed’). I guess it’s a rather standard image of gender ambiguity, or simply of cross-dressing, but I think that the fact that I am trans does imbue it with something of an extra dimension. I also think that it is important, although not essential, that the photographer of individuals such as those who participated in the calendar project is also trans or at least sufficiently cognitive of queer identity to feel aligned with their subjects. Often, the identity of trans people be- comes the purview of others. I don’t mean only in terms of visual representation, which often relies on the discourse of fetish – as in earlier manifestations of trans pornography (a genre in which genderqueer, queer and trans directors and producers are now increasingly establishing themselves, representing their own community) – or that of a strange and even supposedly-threatening ambiguity (images over which the readers of gossip magazines are invited to pore, trying to discern the gender identity of their subjects). I mean also in terms of discourse. Trans people’s autonomy over their bodies is often compromised by their promotion as some sort of curiosity to whom it is deemed acceptable to pose intimate questions without asking for permission, and thereby to determine their identity even in contrast to their own wishes.

I think here of trans*people, myself included, who have been told that they are not ‘really’ or ‘sufficiently’ trans because they do not desire to have certain surgeries, identify themselves in accordance with certain preconceived gender norms, etc. I was also advised by my doctor, several years ago now, that I should simply take testosterone for as long as was necessary to ‘pass’ unquestioningly as male (preferably whilst becoming a temporary recluse) and then to re-emerge as a new self, not mentioning my past, once this process was over. This phenomenon is often referred to as ‘going stealth’ and in some cases it is simply a survival mechanism. But I didn’t want to avoid having to explain to the world my identity. I wanted to make myself visible within that world as a transman. To be not only in front of but also behind the lens will perhaps be our best chance of deconstructing these notions and showing ourselves to the world exactly as we are.’

To read the article in full, and to purchase the rest of Nyx Issue 8, http://nyxnoctournal.org/buy-issue-8-skin/.

Portrait of Finn Jackson Ballard, 2013, by Liz Rosenfeld, in which they discuss Ballard’s featured Transmasculinities photo calendar project.

Image by Richard Sawdon Smith
Video

Issue 8: Skin extract, Richard Sawdon Smith

Tattoo Virus: AIDS Representation on the Skin, by Richard Sawdon Smith, published in full in Nyx, a noctournal, Issue 8: Skin.

Image by Richard Sawdon Smith

Image by Richard Sawdon Smith

‘In 2009 I started a project entitled The Anatomical Man (born out of a long-standing project called Observe) in which I had part of the circulatory system tattooed onto my body. Since being diagnosed with HIV in 1994 I have documented through photographs and film my consistent, regular and repetitive trips to the clinic to have blood tests to screen for levels of illness/health. This invasive but necessary procedure induces a small amount of pain but through my work, and perhaps a fetishisation of the process, I have turned it into a ritual that the work now demands, as I have more blood tests in order to continue the project. In some ways creating the work makes the nurse (their hands visible in the pictures) carrying out the blood test complicit in my own artistic practice, and possibly the masochism of my subjection, as I submit to the needle and more painful blood tests.

In this case the observation of health, looking for internal signs of the effect of the virus living in the body in order to arrive at a perceived medical truth, occurs by the prick of a needle. The process of tattooing medical illustrations of veins and arteries on to my arms and chest, including the heart, also draws blood with the use of a needle. By referencing the former in the latter, I collapse the internal and external together on the surface of the skin.

Where I had once made the nurses complicit in my practice I now confuse them. This is not a mapping of my own veins and arteries but representations, anatomical drawings from the 1850s. I am playing with layers of the real and the imagined, in one respect the work, the tattoos, reveal the medical procedures of illness, making visible the behind-the -scenes routines, referencing not only the rupturing of the body’s surface but the repetition and banalities of life under the clinical gaze. I am no closer to knowing myself through the tests or the tattoos— I have simply arrived at an alternative, another me.

With these ideas of layering on the surface of the skin I pick up on Akira Mizuta Lippit’s discussion on the concept of recovery, which with an incurable disease such as HIV becomes problematic. He writes:

In the register of health, recovery refers to the process of healing, of restoring the body to a phantasmatic condition of wholeness. Recovery, the act of recovering, however, also initiates a semiotic chain that includes covering, that is concealing, as well as discovering. (1994: 6)

Similarly, Amelia Jones 
(when writing about the work of Franko B) explains:

The working through of the non-existent borders between the self and the other, the body and the world, absence and presence, life and death – borders we obsessively attempt to shore up and maintain in the face of all evidence that they are constructed and thus fundamentally “unreal.” (2006: online)

Lippit and Jones suggest that the idea of ‘wholeness’ that we ‘obsessively attempt to shore up’ is a constructed fantasy and that the medical/scientific drive is always “torn between the desire to recover the totality of natural phenomena as it sees it and to disrupt that closure with new discoveries, new ruptures” (Lippit, 1994: 7). In my tattooing of my skin with drawings of the internal workings of the body, drawings that speak of a virus circulating through the veins, I too perhaps end up rejecting the concept of the essence. My work is suspicious of the infinite surface; every surface can be torn to reveal another surface, another plane of intensity. I challenge the scientific drive to return to an idea of wholeness, as I know I cannot return.’

To read the article in full, and to purchase the rest of Nyx Issue 8, go to http://nyxnoctournal.org/buy-issue-8-skin/.

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Issue 8: Skin

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Editorial, by J.D. Taylor

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca once wrote that ‘only mystery makes us live’.

Strange then that, for a neoliberal era determined to penetrate and commercially recuperate every ‘outside’ zone, something so close to the bone as skin, that hypersensory border between self and the world, remains suffused with mystery.

The skin, like the mind, never presents itself as a blank canvas. From the outset it is determined by external identity markers like gender or colour. Skin is the most ubiquitous signifier of selfas-object: it is disciplined by shifting social definitions of health or beauty; it is clothed, marked or pierced, subjected to various regimes of hygiene. Yet skin is also the interface of human embodiment, the sensory envelope of our comfort, identity, pains and pleasures within the world. This troublesome, protective and unstable expanse is a continual texture of conflict, claimed and reclaimed in exercises, markers, inks and identities, compelling to touch.

For its eighth issue, Nyx, a Noctournal called on theorists and artists to investigate Skin. We  present a series of new work tackling sexuality, gender, affect, pornography, love, self, the ego and the other, as well as more that slips categorisation. We question the writer Stewart Home, and the philosopher Catherine Malabou on it; translate voices from other cultures; and capture its glimpses in fiction, photography, and illustration.

Nyx, a Noctournal is a peer-reviewed print/online journal of art, politics and critical theory. It is edited and produced by researchers clustered around the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, London. Further work will be published online at nyxnoctournal.org, as well as the call for contributions for our next issue.

We hope you enjoy this body of work, and give special thanks to all our contributors and everyone who has helped put this issue together.

 

Contents:

 

Cover Image: ‘The Feature (Isabelle)’ by Alice White

Editorial by JD Taylor

Acts of Estrangement: Reading the Psoriatic-Skin by Trish McTighe, with images by Tom Moore

Super 8 by Hedi El Kholti

Northumbrian Psycho. Interview with Stewart Home by Nicholas Gledhill, with images by Paul Staxx Spraget

Eating Skins: Paper, Ink & Flesh in 6 courses by Traci Kelly

Like Faces Seen in Dreams by Alistair Cartwright

Those aren’t my parents by Tom Mortimer

Encountering the skins of Black Swan and The Skin I Live In by Kathleen Scott, with images by Geiste Marija Kincinaityte

Between Dialectics and Deconstruction. Interview with Catherine Malabou by Mark Rainey, with images by Emily Speed

Transmasculinities by Finn Jackson Ballard, with additional image by Liz Rosenfeld

K Draws a Plum by Mira Mattar, with images by Rebecca Foster

Beauty Marked by Gemma Parker

Lightning Flowers by Giulia Morucchio & Marta Muschietti

A Conversation with Federico Campagna, by Kevin W. Molin, with images by Alice White

Working on Skin by Phil Sawdon

Someone’s Always Missing Somewhere by Inge Hoonte

The ‘Common Skin’ – A phantasmatic image in psychoanalysis by Nadine Hartmann

Skingraphs by Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny (SUPERM)

Tattoo Virus: AIDS Representation on the Skin by Richard Sawdon Smith

Visible Unseen by Regina Agu

Untitled Image by Alessandro Ripane

 

Click below to buy your own copy of Issue 8:Skin and support our future work:

 

Nyx #8 just the pdf (colour) £6

Nyx #8 + UK postage (black and white) £6

Nyx #8 + UK postage (colour) £8

Nyx #8 + EU postage (colour) £9.65

Nyx #8 + rest of world postage (colour) £10.80

 

Alternatively, we currently stock Nyx, a noctournal in the following bookshops:

 

Bookmarks- 1 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QE

Cornerhouse Bookstore- 70 Oxford Street; Manchester M1 5NH

Goldsmiths, University of London- Student Union Shop, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

Housmans- 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 NDX

ICA Bookshop- Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH

London Review Bookshop- 14 Bury Place; London WC1A 2JL

Pages of Hackney- 70 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London E5 0RN

X marks the Bokship- 210 / Unit 3 Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9NQ

Image by Alessandro Ripane

Issue 8: Skin launch party

Cover image by Alice White

Please join us for the launch of Nyx: A Noctournal issue 8 featuring Stewart Home, Catherine Malabou, Hedi el Kholti and many more. The launch night will include art and video projections, DJs and bands (Mean Bikini, Rude Intruder, and The Wharves) and you’ll be able to pick up a copy of the new issue. Tickets will be £3 on the door.

Where: The CLF Art Cafe AKA The Bussey Building, Peckham, SE15 4ST

When: Friday 10th May, 10 p.m.

Nyx poster launch

Collecting and Curating Sound: An Interview with the Kinokophone Collective, by Mark Rainey

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Kinokophone are an audio collective based in Manchester who collect, compose and curate sounds and field recordings. Over the past two years they’ve produced installations, organised oral history projects and hosted field recording listening sessions. Their latest listening session was held at the British Library on 13 November, 2012. Titled ‘Kinokophonography’ these sessions allow participants to collectively listen to audio recordings, both professional and amateur, submitted from around the world. Stripped of visual stimuli, these sessions highlight the intensity and depth of aural experience – an experience which is often overlooked in our highly visual culture.

Nyx caught up with Michael Belantara, a member of the collective, for a quick interview outside Euston Station, before he caught his train back North.

www.kinokophone.com

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Skin’s Dead Matter – Issue 8 Call for Contributions

“Personally, I prefer to imagine man as a machine, which transmutes in itself so-called ‘dead matter’ into a psychical energy and will, in some far-away future, transform the whole world into a purely psychical one … At that time nothing will exist except thought. Everything will disappear, being transmuted into pure thought, which alone will exist, incarnating the entire mind of humanity … At some future time all matter absorbed by man shall be transmuted by him and by his brain into a sole energy – a psychical one. This energy shall discover harmony in itself and shall sink into self-contemplation – in a meditation over all the infinitely creative possibilites concealed in it.”
– Maxim Gorky, Fragments from My Diary (1923).

Nearly eighty years ago, god-building intellectuals were celebrating the possibilities of the end of the body. Skin became mere matter, dead matter. Scavenging through history’s ashes, reflecting on what was discussed about Machines in Issue Seven, we have a sense now of where those technological utopias lie. Where is skin, and what is skin, today?

The deadline for 250-word abstracts and images for Nyx’s next issue, Skin, is on November 15th. Read the full call here.

We Know What We’re Marching against but What are We Marching for?, by J.D. Taylor, Charlotte Latimer and Kevin W. Molin

Charlotte Latimer, J.D. Taylor and K.W. Molin on the anti-cuts march organised by Trade Union Congress, 20th October 2012.

Fight the cuts

 

C.: Marched in London for ‘a better future’, caught up with friends, danced to reggae and got a free lunch from the Hare Krishnas. It was a great day out, but what impact did it have? While 100,000 dedicated people turned up, they only constitute about 0.002% of the UK population: a poor turn-out when compared to the severity of the cuts. The initial excitement felt at marches last year has faded away, muted in part by the extreme tactics of the police. People are refusing to look ahead to where England, and the rest of the world, are headed.

 

J.D.: I wasn’t expecting a better future, I’d marched enough times, knew the route well enough not to bring a map. Marches haven’t impacted policy decisions and seem to have largely depressed, rather than excited, public opinion. I came because it was a common symbolic protest against the Tory-led government and its scorched-earth political war against the working class. I’d include the majority of police, or ‘plebs’ as the Tories call them, in that bracket. Most people I talk to in the community are against cuts, but no-one knows what they’re for.

 

K.W.: I woke up late on Saturday, around eleven thirty, even though I had not gone to bed particularly late the night before. At some point in the day, I remembered the march was going on. I was just outside the building where I live, talking to a Greek neighbour, and the topic emerged, with some air of resignation. I don’t wish to argue against marches as a form of activity, far from that. Sometimes a march is more than necessary, even from one point to another, but sometimes not doing something might be even more ‘useful’. Hard to know when or what. I ended up spending almost whole day reading new Ofsted regulations, in force since September, and realising that some of the documentation is more loose than expected, and that school leaders or inspectors or teachers themselves use a lot of their own interpretations, amplifying its perverse basis upon constant measurement, evidence, impact to a force it originally lacked.

One example: I know at least a couple respected teachers who have been tortured with constant evaluations and forced to change school or job by school leadership, as a consequence of not having filled in a ‘lesson plan’ proforma in preparation for inspection. Stories are legions. These are the typical forms that eat your hours away and require high level copy-pasting skills, for generally little educational benefit. Well, the surprise was that the official documentation requires no lesson plan whatsoever. None. I was shocked. To my knowledge, most schools if not all demand that all lessons are planned by the minute beforehand, all year round.

C.: There needs to be some shared aims and objectives and more empowering forms of resistance. Marching from one designated point to another is a weak form of resistance as the largest global protest in history, against the Iraq war, taught us. The best thing the march can offer is a place from which to build collectively, but build what? We have to start acting now unless we want the coalition government to continue to rip apart our institutions in a careless and irresponsible way.

 

J.D.: There’s some religiously righteous element to marches I struggle with: the politeness, the hymns, the exhortations to a congregation of brothers and sisters, the near-annual vigils. The countless marches against Thatcher are forgotten now, the riots and battles less so. -like nature of themMarches are always so polite, like a long queue to a tourist attraction where you know exactly what will happen, wave a placard from A to B; a cheeky song with rude words in; jeer at a line of fascist pig !!!! policemen or at an otherwise popular coffee-shop. It does have its limits, this kind of ‘resistance’. There was a shared objective: possibly, perhaps, organise a 24-hour general strike, because, after all, cuts are bad, for ordinary children and for ordinary families! The problem lies in the vagueness of this call, and the lack of political will for such a strike. That if such a strike were organised, a 24-hour strike would not disrupt infrastructure, say compared to a one week strike. That the unions haven’t been an effective mobiliser for precarious, non-unionised workers, the unemployed, and college students. That attempting to speak to ‘ordinary hard-working families’ is also the very same normative language of the Tory-led government. And that the mass mobilisation of bodies, against scantily protected institutions, results in, what, an orderly line of people queueing up to hear Ed Miliband talk?

 

K.W.: When I hear the term outcome or objective, I shudder. It’s again a remnant from school expectations. Ofsted are no doubt keen in formulating anything that is valuable as a learning experience in terms of having clear, observable, objectives set and shared with students at the beginning of the lesson. Documentation does not state this, but from my experience, I’ve been always been ‘trained’ to think that a lesson is poor if the aren’t clearly written lesson objectives on the first slide of the PowerPoint. This seems to be independent of the fact that the majority of kids I speak to have no idea what the word ‘objective’ even means, after at least twelve years of it being mentioned. Perhaps, that’s a good attitude. Still, I have no problem with objectives per se, more with the idea that these are always visible, measurable, explicit, fixed, known in advance. I seem to be only talking of schools, but there is a certain order that is instilled or begins somewhere, with no great authority demanding this other than a general culture of compliance. Even the march complies with the protocol march, gestures, songs, etc.

Hard to know where problems reside, what unit of measure to use, who to blame, how to do something about it. Marching can be good. I’d like to see some more marching on the tune of non-compliance, however. Marching instead of working, more than marching outside of work or as an extension of it. Besides reading the Ofsted guidance, I endured two hours of a very bad French movie, despite falling asleep a couple of times, and I kept hoping that all my suspicions that the plot wouldn’t turn out as predictable as it seemed were misguided, that there must be some twist coming at some point, some of the internal dialogues and music seemed suggestive of something more to happen – only to be disappointed by the two protagonists eventually kissing with an overlaid Fin. Not I have anything against love.

C: Nobody from any of our major political parties represents me or my views, I can’t even begin to imagine how alienated others must feel. Why is the current political systems so narrow, inflexible and archaic? Why can’t they be more fluid and inclusive? Wouldn’t living in a society that offered up opportunity and opened up possibility create citizens who were more passionate, engaged and driven? I know this is a vague, undeveloped argument but I’m not claiming that I know the best way to reform the political system, but the belief in that possibility has to exist before it can happen. The classism that is deeply rooted in English culture is no longer able to hide behind the affluence of the past few decades, austerity has made clear who owns what and who has power.

J.D.: ‘No future'; ‘no escape’ – I wake up most days and see the evidence of these words, feel the consequences of these words, hear them echo round my brain in snatches of song. Compelling feelings I wish to be rid of. They are not new feelings, but marks of domination and passivity, a cynical peace-making with powerlessness. So much hard work already goes into grassroots political organisation. It’s impossible to keep up with the new work of critical theorists across the world who devote their waking hours to theorising alternative political movements. There is no shortage of ideas or meetings! But ideas or meetings alone won’t convince demoralised peoples, or topple smug governments. I think the Left has always had a charming but doomed faith in the rationality of its opponents. Neoliberal leaders like Thatcher and Murdoch, Branson and Blair, have never been interested in free markets for their own sake.

K.W.: … 

C.: The tax scandals that have been revealed over the last year, the most recent being Starbucks shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The raison d’être of capitalism as an economic system is to accumulate profit. The laws in England, and across the globe, have evolved with that system to serve and protect money. All the different groups representing at the march today all had one thing in common, they were all campaigning for a system that doesn’t prioritise money over all else (arts, education, health etc). Money is a tool that we use to distribute the resources that we have in the world; how it gets regulated, inflated, manipulated and distributed is up to those who have it. What is crazy is a culture that encourages businesses, organisations and individuals to make money their primary focus and target. At this point the system is not working, the liberation that was promised by the free market has not been delivered, it’s time to start finding alternatives. As difficult as it is to unpick and understand the complex global economic situation we now inhabit, the only way to smash it and stop it is from the ground up. There is no one at the top controlling it who can reign it back in.

 

D.: Consider the huge level of state intervention to protect financial capitalism. Neoliberalism as an idea was generated precisely as a counter-ideology to communism. Perhaps the naivety of political neoliberalism was to believe its own propaganda: money cannot be made, it is a power-relation. It has always belonged to banks which possess it, and governments which regulate it. Compare two responses to the 2008 credit crisis: decline in the UK, with the failure of quantitative easing in the UK and the cuts to public services, a naïve ‘balancing of the books'; versus investment in infrastructure that will in turn produce demand, reduce unemployment, train the workforce and improve overall quality of life. Again, there’s that danger of rationalising our opponents.

 

C.: You have to spend money to make money; the cuts are illogical. Hacking away at public services and selling what’s left off to private businesses is irresponsible. So many people will be left in crisis by the reduction of services and benefits, the human cost is going to be astronomical and this will impact the economy massively. Most public services, like education and health, enable and encourage people to work, without this infrastructure many will find it hard to cope. The inevitable rise in crime and homelessness will create chaos, the attractiveness of London to tourists and finance capital will start to fade. If nothing else, why, when there is so much scrutiny on public spending why would a government give its taxpayers’ money to private companies who will utilise those contracts to boost their profit margins?

 

J.D.: Maybe I’m giving Gideon Osborne too much credit: it seems mass unemployment and social crises in low-income areas aren’t a problem in what has been a very well-organised effort to turn the UK into a tax haven. All the political parties are near-identical in their Oxbridge-educated neoliberal fervour: appealing to the wisdom or clemency of well-fed politicians to affect change will get the working-class nowhere. Power is something already possessed by workers, the problem is that, so far, there’s never been confidence to assume it, act it, and use it. But arguing against the effects of government cuts based on their inconsistency with its propaganda, well, it feels a bit like trying to persuade a child’s imaginary friend not to burn down houses. Let’s grab that matchbox away.

 

C.: At the moment narratives of austerity and necessity are continuing to hold power over many people in the UK. Small grassroots groups are working hard to try and beat down those stories and create a space for alternatives. Amongst others there were local services, workers collectives and educational groups present at the march; all affected by the cuts, all asking for a reassessment of priorities. These groups are small and fragmented and are working hard to strengthen their resistance While we need to work collaboratively to create its important not to lose sight of the importance of that diversity and retain a variety of perspectives. The government is not listening. We need to start asking ourselves ‘What do we want?’ and ‘When do we want it?'; we know what we’re marching against but what are we marching for?

Call for Contributions – Nyx A Noctournal #8: Skin

Skin: Nyx a noctournal call for contributions

For its eighth issue, Nyx, a noctournal seeks contributions that question the concept of skin: as a border that demarcates inside and outside, a threshold that contains and translates identities, a membrane that signals the point at which we become in-the-world, the most ubiquitous signifier of self-as-object.

In particular we are currently seeking work that addresses themes of race and ethnicity. We would be very interested to engage with new and original contributions to the wider discourses on blackness, whiteness, racial identity and post-colonialism.

Submissions can be in the form of short academic essays, journalism, prose fiction or images.

Nyx a noctournal is a print/online publication of critical theory, radical politics and art, peer-reviewed by a collective of young researchers, activists and theorists based at Goldsmiths, London.

Proposals of no more than 500 words / 5 images, inc. a very brief biog, to noctournal@gmail.com by 7th January.

What happens next?, by Charlotte Latimer

Olympic leak

“Yet you could feel a vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of the decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what?”
Patti Smith, Just Kids

Reading Just Kids (2010) I was struck by how, as the world keeps changing irrevocably, our struggle to make sense of it, to predict it, impedes our ability to act. Having just lived through the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1968 it’s easy to see why Smith would sense a feeling of anticipation, anxiety excitement. Her writing reflects on a great period of historical and cultural change, but it does not offer it shape or meaning. Like the characters from her memoir we are all constantly on the edge of a historical precipice, which once we have fallen from, we will never be able to claw our way back. Things move quickly and are forgotten, our norms, our beliefs, our ways of seeing are radically overhauled and in the chaos of the everyday it slips our collective consciousness. Seductive technologies reduce humans down to machines. Governments and business measure, monitor and control our inputs and outputs, maximise our processes, find new ways to reshape and remould us, to manipulate our desire. The mystery of the universe, the magic that vibrates within us has been reduced down to a science, only knowledge exists now.

What do the vibrations in the air mean? Is ‘History’ taking an important turn or is it experiencing its last hurrah, a final stab at glory? I say this in light of recent Olympics mania and the great narratives surrounding it, it was for many a truly incredible historical moment. Yet it feels difficult to be part of a community, country, world where outrageous politics continue to fester and capitalistic forces dominate and control every aspect of our waking lives, right down to the clothes we wear, the words we use and the food we eat. This phenomena is not bound to the Olympics, transnational capitalism has been dictating how we live our lives for decades but its process mechanisms have been beautifully crystallised throughout the Olympics.

Grassroots sports, local regeneration, economic development: the main lies that the Olympics has propagated to justify and complete its accumulation of capital. Obviously ‘the Olympics’ have no agency, they are a historical phenomena, the scraping up of huge amounts of either inhabited or radioactive land and ‘taxpayers’ money to be smothered in branding and sold back to us can not be blamed on an ancient Greek tradition (although Greek traditions can be blamed for much of Western politics and philosophy) . To understand the politics of this event we have to step away from representational theory and think about actors, networks and processes. The main sponsors of the Olympics are the obvious targets: politicians, London Transport, and all the people that profited from this takeover of a historical sporting event and the city of London. It is interesting to see what have been the essential processes of capitalism propagated here; colonisation, accumulation, exploitation of labour, huge profit margins, hoarded by the very wealthy and underhanded dealings. The relentless need to accumulate profit at the expense of the environment, social issues and economic justice or sustainability. The big companies rush in, take everything they can and then leave. Abandoning an area that has been changed beyond recognition, spatial and social relations destroyed, production and distribution disrupted, environment damaged, no jobs and obesity levels rising with kids hooked on cadburys, McDonalds and Coca-cola.

With youth unemployment on the rise and less and less opportunity to access higher or further education it’s hard not to be cynical, building hope is the challenge, its hard to feel powerful or entitled when public spaces are commercially owned, social housing is being sold off, the cost of living is astronomical and minimum wage has hardly changed in years. Sometimes being positive can feel like a betrayal. If things seem bad now its nothing compared to what will happen once the full force of the cuts and changes to the welfare system come into play. Will London become another city where the rich live in gated communities and the poor live in slums? Just walking around you can already see that homelessness is on the rise and then witness the grotesque extravagance of the wealthy in places like Canary Wharf . What now? More riots? Class war? Terrorism? Without getting carried away with the romanticism of the post-apocalypse, it is worth acknowledging that we are always in a process of change, but we don’t know what these new changes will bring.

Where do you place yourself in relation to the world? What do you accept or let slip? What do you feel you have to stand up and shout against, to rage in the streets and tear your hair out for? When do you decide to make the best of it, patch up what’s left and keep going? Time keeps running away from us,the tide turns, the war is won, the battle is lost. Truth evades us, escapes us, mocks us. We are left to make sense out of uncertainty, to face change, to make choices. We rely on the stories we tell to give us meaning and purpose, because it is narrative, tales of heroism or feats of wonder that eventually unite us, empower us, change us. History will always throw up the unexpected but we can use language, like ribbon, to tie ourselves together, to fix a position, to find a voice. With so much going on in the world it can be hard to listen, to think, to concentrate, to know when and how to speak and act, but it is the dialogues we have with ourselves and each other that lie at the heart of what happens next.

Language, politics and human nature: An interview to Paolo Virno (Translation by Kevin W. Molin)

This interview was conducted in April 2001 as part of Pozzi, Roggero and Borio’s project that then produced the book “Futuro Anteriore”, a transcript of which can be found in Italian here.

Largely still untranslated into English, besides the two texts A Grammar of the Multitude (2004) and Multitude Between Innovation and Negation (2008), semiologist Paolo Virno is no doubt one of the key figures of the Italian post-Marxist strain. Speaking about his past experiences in such way that crosses between veiled ironies, reflections of the day or in retrospect, provocative re-appropriations and non-dialectical negations, this recent lengthy interview moves in a multitude of directions: from his own cultural formation, his involvement in militant activity and in several magazine projects, to the general intellect seen as a tug of war and a call to engage critically with our opponents. Virno spares little effort in analysing life within the changed paradigm brought by the emergence of post-Fordism, particularly in terms of its implications in forcing through a critical scrutiny of trite Marxist categories of class composition.

Translating Virno is no easy task, given the importance he attributes to language, playing around with multiple meanings. It is partly a failure if one wishes exactness. To use one of his own notions, a translation as any other creative act has a potential for ‘innovation’, whether in the doing or in the reception it seeks to expand, as well as an element of ‘negation’.

What has been your path of political and cultural formation, and how did you begin militant activity?

I became politically active in Genoa, where my family lived and I went to high school. Genoa was exposed to Turin’s influence, where the first occupations took place in 1967; then, in the summer of that year, secondary school students mobilised (more lively than those at University, which instead were in contact with traditional party organisations, UGI [Union of Independent Youth] and so on).

As secondary school students we then formed the Sindacato degli Studenti [Union of Students], which in the autumn of 1967 made the first strikes on issues already typical of 1968, the struggle against authoritarianism, solidarity with the Greek students after the coup d’état and whatever else.

So, this was the initiation. Some of those with whom I engaged in politics at the time have had the most diverse destinies: from Carlo Panella who now works for Mediaset in Italy, to Franco Grisolia who is a secretary for Rifondazione [Communist Refoundation Party], a Trotskyite till this day without any alternation (this is what is good about Trotskyites, that they keep up with it!).

The school year 1967-1968 was entirely Genoese, with this type of experience that was important for us like for many others, but done in a working class town of the industrial triangle, thus with relations with the factories of Sanpierdarena: in any case, working class reality weighed immediately on student matters. Instead, in the autumn of 1968, again because of my family’s movement, I came to live in Rome, and not much later I got in contact and relations with the group that later became Potere Operaio [Worker’s Power], which was then essentially based in the capital as the group from the scientific faculties, the one of the base committees at the Fatme factory. Especially the latter, between the autumn of 1968 and the start of 1969, was a mass experience that opened and closed some successful struggles, where the workers took home concrete things on piecework, time, rhythms and so forth.

In Rome Potere Operaio was not yet really called as such, and the decisive experience was then that of La Classe [The Class] from the spring of 1969 in Turin. These are years of Italian history in which there is a historiographical point to make, that is also a theoretical paradigm: while on 1968 you find thousands of voices and another thousand on 1969, you find few, or at least few attentive ones, to what happened between the summer of 1968 and the summer of 1969, which is rather the point of maximum maturity of the basic themes of the Italian revolution. It’s the year of base committees and autonomous disputes in large and medium sized factories. So, in the warm autumn happen the factory councils of 1969 etc., and we know about 1968: whilst this in between season, which is instead the laboratory, even from a theoretical point of view, the most paradoxical, the most complicated to understand, remains in general perfectly ignored, if it wasn’t for those few people who claim a critical tradition. Thus, I made contact with those people in my school’s base committees, which consisted in forms of collective closeness through basic themes, those of La Classe, that is, salary, working hours, this materialism against all histories of consciousness, anti-authoritarianism, raw things, stuff from Frankfurt, ineffable: instead, there was an intellectual radicalism, in reality even theoretical, that was however short-circuited immediately by material conditions. I enter Potere Operaio after the crucial episodes of the spring of 1969 in Turin, after the national convention of the base committees at the end of July, and thus at the end of August 1969 when, after the break with Lotta Continua [Continuous Struggle], it was just about time when Potere Operaio was really forming as an organisation. Like many others, I was struck by this theoretical and cultural openness, the fact that it took seriously the great bourgeois culture, it took seriously negative thinking, it took seriously classical philosophy and the great economy, Keynes, Schumpeter, in a situation in which both culture and the references current in the movement where what they were. Of course this caused some vices (narcissism, and whatever else), and obviously not all comrades of Potere Operaio read those things, this is not the point: but one thing is to pretend to have read Schumpeter or Keynes and another thing is to pretend to have read Mao’s Little Red Book.

Parodic and boastful behaviours have obviously existed there like everywhere else, although to be honest there is also a diversity of quality, which matters, in what people boast about. Thus, there was this openness about Marx and the struggles, in between great philosophy and great economy: Marx against Marxism in short, Marx as a sociological instrument, even empirical. It’s a discourse that then comes back again today, when it was argued within Luogo Comune [Commonsense] and other experiences, even with a certain bitterness, that the most futuristic pages of Marx, like those of “Fragment on Machines”, were achieved but without revolution, without crisis: the general intellect, the centrality of knowledge and communication in the social production of post-Fordism (or however you want to call it) have been achieved, to the extent that those pages become at most a breviary for the sociologist rather than a trendy discourse. But already then there was this consideration of several chapters of Das Kapital and of the Grundrisse and so on as congruous with what was happening day-to-day on a material basis. Besides, years later (skipping the chronological order) I lived in Milan the adventure, experience and luck to substitute Oreste Scalzone for a month in one of those improbable jobs he had, that is, as a subtitute for 150 hours at the Alfa Romeo factory in Arese. For a month I thus substituted the substitute, that is, Oreste. At the time I even carried out an intervention at Alfa Romeo, so I knew well all the vanguards, however those sort of lessons on the first book of Das Kapital (that was there textbook) were a curious thing: one can imagine the reading of the chapter on machines, the chapter on the working day, partly carried out with comrades, partly instead with whatever workers, not particularly politicised ones. This was however a sort of confirmation, some years after this general assumption of the workerist experience (towards the end of 1973), that is, the immediately applicable character or the most advanced pages of Marx to the material conditions of extreme modernity.

I was in Potere Operaio from the start to finish, from August-September 1969 until its dissolving and even beyond. First, in Rome, intervening during the warm autumn in the few Roman medium factories (such as Vox with 2000 workers near Tiburtina), then later with the territorial interventions in the neighbourhoods, with the occupation of houses.

There was the first episode in the autumn of 1971 with quite an ugly operation by Potere Operaio, which did a conference that got radicalised, there were themes of rupture with the crisis like we called it at that time, rupture with the flow of the crisis and forcefulness before there was a resettlement of capitalist organisation, all those things badly summarised at the time in the term ‘insurrection’: thus, there was a sort of political expedition that is the least desirable thing in regards to a reality like that in Turin, one of those quick things, a showdown within the group.

It was thus a thing that I don’t remember with pleasure, however for me it was important this first relationship both with the comrades from Turin and with the visual and perceptive impact of Fiat. This was the autumn of 1971.

I was again in Rome in 1972, I was more or less in the leading structures, in the board and the secretary of the Rome section. From March-April 1972 I was in the national executive. Groups ossified and all these things we know by heart happened. For example, I am not one of those who give a negative judgment on groups.

Give me credit on the fact that I could speak for two hours on the parodies, on the crap, on the recuperation of old models, etc.; having said this, I consider that after 1969 a specific problem was posed concerning political power, not a linear one (to put it in mathematical terms). In the most banal terms, one could say that the problem is to find a political outlet for a movement that for the first time (to say it with Gramsci against Gramsci) does not seek a revolution against Das Kapital but in accordance with Das Kapital: thus, not against misery and backwardness, but against the very relations of capitalist production and against its waged labour. It’s something that is unprecedented and that sought its own political forms; it was perceived as such within the management of trade unions, of FIOM [Federation of Employed Metal Workers], it was a general political debate.

In my opinion, positions like the one of Capanna in Milan (to speak of one of the most famous of the time, then obviously the debate in the middle of the 1970s would be different, it would be a debate about autonomy) were claiming: “no mass political movement, for heaven’s sake”, then they sidelined with the PCI [Italian Communist Party] and did ‘servizio d’ordine’ [stewarding at demonstrations] not much later for the UIL [Italian Union of Labour].

So, there was a problem there, which for me in its best versions has been elaborated and gathered within Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio, and then in a certain measure and in their own way (a manner very different and far from my own) by Avanguardia Operaia [Worker’s Vanguard] and others. However, it seems to me an undue simplification (certainly historically but perhaps even from a political and theoretical point of view), even from a distance of many years, that we passed from the Eden of 1968 assemblies and base committees of the spring of 1969 to the small, barren and inconclusive rituals of groups: on this I would be more cautious and I would remember what was at stake. That then we failed with what was at stake, it is one thing; but that however there was something at stake with its own specificity, with its own discontinuity in regards to the linear development of linear movements, in my opinion it has to be admitted. This comes to my mind in relation to the fact that since 1972 I participated in one of these structures that are a bit funny, ridiculous and often lived ironically within Potere Operaio, that is, the executive branch.

Then there is the Rosolina Congress, the break, and I side with Piperno. I think that the discussion was not about being in favour or against the factory assemblies in Milan, there was a general consensus about them as a central reference in all its organisations, between all comrades, in all debates there was never any doubt; a theoretical and not merely a practical problem of how one does something or doesn’t, related to some specific subjective functions, in particular in regards to the use of violence.

At the time, the problem was: is there already someone in Italy who answers in a satisfying way to this political issue, organisational and even theoretical, that are the functions of rupture or however they want to call them? If it is so, obviously they can be delegated to those who already perform them in a form that is essentially satisfying, on the other hand the problem remains to elaborate how to do them, that is, the forms of these functions.

This was the debate. Of course, whoever claimed that they already existed said: “so then I work directly with the autonomous assemblies, somebody else will think about this”. Others did not think they absolutely didn’t exist, but that the manner in which these rupturing functions were elaborated were within a lineage substantially internal to the old working class movement, that is, a radical continuation of militant antifascism, of the red resistance, if you want an armed struggle for reforms (this could also be done, in the end the problem of the form of struggle matters but it’s not decisive).

Therefore, the debate in Rosolina was about this, and then of course about many other matters: class composition, the proceeding of the crisis, the rapidity of capitalist reorganisation, which of course was the very thing at stake in the Italian revolution.

I think (and this one instead is a historiographical and theoretical point) that in the 20th century there have been two failed revolutions, and those who say, like Tronti or others, that there has been one, the one that everybody knows about of the 1920s, are mistaken. There have been two failed revolutions and nothing can be understood of the century (to use the grandiloquent language Tronti is so fond of) unless you take account of both of them: one is the revolution in the West in the 1920s (in Germany and elsewhere), the other the revolution in its proper sense of the 1960s and 1970s, the first that is against the capitalist mode of production and not against backwardness and pauperism, and of which post-Fordism is substantially the great replication, the counter-revolution.

I’ll explain myself: by revolution I do not mean that many people shouted words of a revolutionary order, the carnival of subjectivity does not interest me. Either one says that all failed revolutions do not exist, and that might be said, it is a form of mental hygiene if you want; or, if the dimension of failed revolution is introduced, it is necessary to have a sober criteria (not attached to the shouting and humming of subjects at the time) of what constitutes a failed revolution.

In my view it is possible to speak of failed revolution, in a sober and objective manner, whenever there is a consistent and long period to time in which there is an impasse in political and social decision, in the places of production, in the popular neighbourhoods and in other delicate state institutions. This long impasse between two opposing social powers did exist in Italy (and sometimes more generally, in certain years and places of the capitalist West).

In this sense I speak of failed revolution, of revolutionary situation: I have absolutely no interest in convictions, in drunkenness, in inebriations, I speak of them in this sense. And for counter-revolution I do not mean a return to the Ancien Régime, a reconstitution of what already was there; I think counter-revolution like an inverted revolution, like something extraordinarily innovative and that, moreover, makes and utilises many of its own pressures, instances, ways of being and inclinations that feed by themselves the revolution.

Since the end of 1972 and beginning of 1973 onwards, I lived and engaged in politics in Milan: I worked at Alfa Romeo and Innocenti, I saw the dissolution of Potere Operaio and participated in the discussion, that was not even a banal discussion: some fragments (the most worthy, the least cramped) were in some way a debate on the prodromes of post-Fordism, or at least the prodromes of capitalism’s exit from Fordism (I remember for example Magnaghi’s contributions to the notion of ‘fabric diffusa’ [dispersed production] that soon after were printed in Quaderni del Territorio [Notebooks on the Territory], even the discussion with Toni).

The debate within Potere Operaio even had its high moments, charged with predictions on this transition. In it there was exactly the weakness and fragility of the political experience: the issue is of course the one of the appropriate time, the right time, if this way out of Fordism happens in an abrupt shift and within times decided by the capitalist side then the social framework, the framework of subjectivity is completely changed and you’ve lost; the problem is to remain within this shift, not to antagonise it in the name of the beauty of assembly lines. In short, the problem was to determine which was the sign of this shift: there is a delicate phase of transition and within it everything is at play. Therefore, I claim that even in the final phase, that is also the most livid and later the most charged of resentments, for many aspects the most detestable, there was a true core of discussion.

Subsequently I remained in Milan to carry out interventions at Innocenti, with the few that remained in Milan with Potere Operaio who had not yet sided with Autonomia, very few people. Then, when there was the second so-called occupation of Fiat, that of February-March 1974, I went to Turin where I had some good friends and good comrades, it was a reality that was more or less standing on its feet as a site of action; and then the struggles and the intervention on auto-reductions and so forth. In the summer or the start of the autumn of 1975 I returned to Rome, at first I thought provisionally, then instead for several reasons I ended up staying.

A mid season began in which there was no longer any organisation, in which there are new cycles of study and reflection, until the autumn of 1976 and the start of 1977. In that period there is actually a reflection back on 1968 and the 1968-1973 cycle, on the fact that the social labour power has another channels of formation, other subjective expressions. This discussion takes place within a group of Roman comrades that worked together for professional reasons; they had set up a centre of research that was called CERPET [Research Centre for Economic and Territorial Programming and Planning]. All these comrades returned to have a public role, make proposals, activities and work in Rome in 1977, but without any organised form. At this point, of course, there was also a modification in the history of Autonomia, which happened around 1975-1976 in Milan and which becomes precisely the new political form of a new class composition; while at the start, in the years between 1973 and 1975, it was something narrower, with more specific reasonings, from 1975 it really becomes the general form of a new class composition consisting in an educated labour power, mental labour, precarious labour, the new social working day. Therefore, the old causes for division within Autonomia go missing and of course you work with them, even if, I repeat, an organising group is missing, an organised subjectivity.

In 1977 you could really see the birth of something new. In this discourse that now we remade even in the 1990s I honestly believe that there isn’t one of those anachronistic dimensions through which you attribute to an earlier moment what you thought subsequently: I think there really was an illumination within the concrete course of the movement, a saying: “behold, this is the overcoming of Fordism, and it’s the overcoming of the Fordism that happens in the form of struggle”.

First the struggles, then the development: 1977 as the birth and debut of post-Fordism, the overcoming of Fordism. Something that however happened several times in the history of capitalist development, the IWW did the struggles in the 1910s, these are unskilled and unstable workers, and in a certain sense they are the outset of that which Taylor and Ford did in the 1920s with the systematic deskilling of labour. There was really an idea of refusal of work, a critique of waged labour, it ceased being the heart of the matter but only in a negative form: that is, there came to emergence, in alto-relievo, dense, positively, the life forms, the forms of existence, the mentalities, the forms of communication of the refusal of work. Therefore, the refusal to work for me has this purely antagonistic character; it showed and secreted its own richness.

The discourse on 1977 were immediately after at the centre of elaboration, in the least ephemeral parts of Metropoli and, for what concerns Lucio Castellano and me, in those two essays published in the Pre-print section that accompanied the magazine, in actual fact written by Lucio at the end of 1976 and by me in 1978. Metropoli was an elaboration hot off the press, but also of some breath, on those essential things that emerged from the conflictual inauguration of post-Fordism, that was the movement of 1977. In Metropoli there was a leitmotif, crushed of course and rather veiled by the articles on terrorism, that for obvious reasons had more clamour: a fundamental and recurrent theme is for example the ever-increasing centrality of language in the workplace, or the rupture with all mentalities associated with Fordism.

In between Potere Operaio and much earlier than Metropoli there was Linea di Condotta [Line of Conduct], only one issue came out, but it was a significant one for many aspects.

It was significant because it was an extreme attempt, conducted between the autumn of 1974 and the start of 1975, to reconnect together some of the splinters that followed the break-up of Potere Operaio.

Toni and the autonomous, to put it this way, had their highs and lows between 1973 and 1975, and besides the obvious relation of reading each other’s stuff there was no direct relationship. But the part of Potere Operaio that did not choose to be in Autonomia (let’s call it this way, even if on the terms I specified earlier) broke up in turn, in that process of infinite division that in biology is called decomposition (regarding corpses): then, there was Oreste and other comrades in Rome that differentiated their initiative, they tied more and more into a group, a radical fraction of Lotta Continua in Milan, in Sesto San Giovanni, the Magneti Marelli company and so on.

So, with Oreste and these others, some from Rome, there were even some in Turin, the relation was much closer, we had been on the same side in Rosolina, even the personal relation was more intimate and closer. Then, an attempt is made to produce a reflection together, through two or three conferences, meetings, and seminars. It was an attempt to say: “ok, when the weekly magazine ended in December 1973 Potere Operaio effectively doesn’t exist, however there could still be a new political form between us”.

The only issue of Linea di Condotta was located within this discourse, which then goes down in history because some important documents appear that cause Lotta Continua to break up their organisation, and some of these will later be part of Prima Linea [Front Line]. Those documents will be considered (with good reason, but certainly with a retrospective look) the general platform of a path that first with Senza Tregua [Without Respite] but then with Prima Linea reaches extreme conclusions.

The issue of Linea di Condotta, thinking about it, is very heterogeneous, very willing, these comrades’ collective will to make something significant happen is understandable: Magnaghi writes on it, Dalmaviva writes on it, I wrote on it, Daghini wrote on it, and of course it is written on, it goes without saying, by this splinter that soon will do Senza Tregua. This also explains why it is only one issue.

Was Marongiu still there?

I think so, but the paradoxical thing is that the vast majority of the Veneto section doesn’t follow Toni, so they remain at the stage of Potere Operaio. Like it happened to the Turin section, even more the one in Veneto closes itself in a local and regional reality: they carry on, things continue as before, in the University, in the small factories, not in the Petrolchimico factory that has always been the part of Veneto that instead sided with Toni (let’s just say like this to keep it simple).

In 1974, in fact, when you went to Turin there were people from Veneto and Florence. Fuori dalle Linee [Outside the Lines] had just come out.

We took them there. That was a very circumscribed event, there was simply the second occupation of Fiat and we thought to amplify it with this organ, this daily paper. And in addition we went to meet with the collectives from Veneto saying: “for these few days it wouldn’t be bad, with all the flaws political tourism has, if you also come to have a look”. They came very willingly, a bit like it happens on school trips, like it’s now done with Prague (and if Prague and the Fiat occupation were to be put on scales, I honestly don’t know where they would pend, it’s tourism on both sides, even if now it seems the only form of political action), but they only came for a week. In my opinion the not so stupid thing, even for what it’s worth, is that the printers of Potere Operaio in Florence, that until December 1973 had done the weekly magazine, were still ours and still working: it was asked to make a sort of free daily paper for four days that was precisely called Fuori dalle Linee, three or four issues came out. So-called articles (that were often aimless screams) were dictated on the phone to the people from Florence, they were printing them and then taking them to Turin by car to give them for the first round. Instead, those from Veneto kept going and actually stayed; perhaps they were still present through Marongiu in this only issue of Linea di Condotta, maybe not through writing but they felt it as theirs, and at the seminars that preceded the issue of Linea di Condotta, in which Piperno and Oreste attended, comrades from Veneto were most attached to the latter, as well Giairio, Marione, in short the old group. Later it was understood that Linea di Condotta was an end of the end rather than a beginning, and those from Veneto close themselves in their regional reality.

They remained then in this separate and regional dimension until when, I think in 1976 or even in 1977, they move closer to Toni and to Rosso [Red], whilst before they had broken with Toni in 1973 by remaining in the core body of Potere Operaio. So there is this intermediate situation, which corresponds to that year and a half or less in which I stayed in Turin.

As regard, then, the mid period previous to 1977, I’m in Rome since the end of 1975 or beginning of 1976 and I already said: reflections, discussions, no longer an organisational reality, a totally active presence, with total dedication to all the phases of the 1977 movement in Rome, this sense of total discontinuity manifesting itself in subjective forms, forms of production, prediction of post-Fordism, unity of labour and communication, and so forth.

So there was a change of paradigm, but I have to say lived in real time, not one that now or thinking about it in the 1990s one says: “at that time class composition has changed, the paradigm has changed, in actual fact three centuries of modern politics have gone in crisis, that is to say, modern political forms have begun, equivalent to what the 15th century had been as a foundation of political forms”.

It has not been just a reflection in retrospect, in the most part it happened in real time, hence the emotion of 1977, a strong emotion, because emotions that last are always (or at least often) linked to cognitive content, and there you can see really that it’s a change of paradigm.

Metropoli should have grown into a very large magazine, on all the areas of 1977, there are meetings with Toni and so on: then of course things go in a different way. It’s understandable, I’ve also done for several years an organising role and I think (I’ve just defended groups) that within organisation, even in its most tatty forms, light or heavy organisations, there’s always very worthy content; however, it is clear that whoever forms an organisation has the problem of continuity, influence, political struggle, etc., and despite having a radical theory, it’s less willing to gamble on it by ignoring tactical transitions, hegemonic transitions. So, the magazine is then made physically between the group in Rome, those without a party and without an organisation and Oreste, who instead had a small party and organisation, but who says: “I behave like you within the magazine”, something he in fact he did, and likewise those that more or less worked directly like De Feo and others. A magazine that became a media event, and it’s the first issue, because it was seized, because the only underlined articles are those on the 7th April that happened two months previous. Some of us are accused, I was there during the arrests of Oreste and Zagato at the base of Metropoli in Rome on that very 7th April, Piperno eluded the arrest through pure luck two or three times in that same day: he eludes it every time like in those Fernandel movies, he arrives right after the police arrived, from which then the legends, the infinite trickery and superior astuteness; I think that, however, like in the history that is greater than us, often this sort of judgment comes from an astonishing concatenation of strokes of luck.

So, the first issue of Metropoli is obviously concerned with the raids, there’s that article by Piperno, that was even reformist and Anglo-Saxon, that says: “the earlier they pay, the better”, but not in the sense of shooting them on the foot, but rather in the sense of “the earlier institutions correct themselves, the better”; not that this was his way of thinking but he had decided to play the part of the consistent liberal.

Thus, those were the articles, the media event of Metropoli. The second issue of Metropoli, after a year in prison, comes out in 1980, but it is once again patchily put together, with articles sent from prison, an issue not thought in its wholeness. Metropoli exists like an organ of reflection on post-Fordism, on the crisis of the society of work, on the new forms of subjectivity, on the year in which five issues come out, on a monthly basis, and it’s 1981: issues 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 come out. With all the flaws that are present in spurious situations, in which there are many traces of old paradigms that however coexist with the most vital intuitions, it’s still possible to find the core, the fulcrum of this reflection.

For example, I believe (but of course this is purely biographical) that the stuff that is not so significant, because judgments can differ, but objectively the most relevant, for example in the elaboration of Luogo Comune, have been the continuation, the sharpening, even with greater cultural and theoretical weight, of things that were all already expressed initially within Metropoli.

I go to prison, but late, in a deferred burst: I am arrested with Castellano, Maesano and Pace (who however eludes the arrest, again, I swear, not because of astuteness). We are arrested on 6th June 1979, then they make us come together on 7th April, we find the others again in the Rebibbia yard, we stay a few months there; then there’s the diaspora, that is, the Ministry orders each one of these convicts to a different special prison, because obviously, through lawyers, visits, despite there was a heavy handed regime, that had become a place where we worked out documents, letters to newspapers, we did political campaigns, there were internal struggles.

Then, there’s the diaspora, I go to Novara, Oreste goes to Cuneo, the other goes to Favignana, and the other still to another place. We start going round these special prisons, and we found each other not all but in part in the Palmi prison, inaugurated in the autumn of 1979, a prison only for political prisoners or totally politicised common people, a sort of ‘kesh’. Inside there was a curious situation, even quite spectacular, because everyone meets together. In fact, for the first period with comrades from Red Brigades or with Alunni or those of NAP [Armed Proletarian Cores], it was thought even to take advantage of this situation to set off a larger discussion, of a ‘constituent’ character: however, the problem is also that even there the most compromised among them, like Curcio, were in agreement, they understood they’d lost the key point, that is, the change of paradigm in 1977, the fact that young workers bore no relation to those of 1969; some instead didn’t get it. In any case, there was a general willingness since the start. However, they were in a period of full development of what they called the strategy of annihilation, in short let’s say the massification of armed struggle, and of course it’s too tight a knot this type of tactic, this passage you are going through, to have the mental slenderness to confront such a large discussion.

So, there was a good intention at the start, almost immediately left aside, and instead there was a greater deepening of a bruise in relationships. I was released, after not longer than a year in prison (11 months and a half), because they declassed my offence from composition to participation, and at that point I had already done in abundance preventive detention. Then I stayed out of prison for two years, the true year of Metropoli, the one in which it is a magazine, for better or for worse, but it is a magazine that is worth its name and not for its media appeal. What’s more it sells a lot, it only goes in bookstalls and never sells less than 15.000 copies: something that can be understood for the first issue, but that becomes significant for the subsequent ones.

To sum up briefly, my detention consisted in one year between 1979 and 1980, then two years of freedom in which I curated the continuous series of Metropoli in 1981, then two more years in prison, first-degree sentence to 12 years, a year of house arrest, which is a good way to simplify the transition in some respects towards post-Fordism in general, be it a micro-social aspect, or otherwise a passage from a disciplinary society to a society of control; the acquittal (together with many other accused of the 7th April) was in 1987, the confirmation in 1988.

Life is suspended, like it always happens when one is convicted, even when let on the loose, Italy’s changed, mentalities are completely modified, old forms of commonality and proximity are totally broken. In 1987 it’s decided with other people to try to understand the terms of our comeback, that is, to understand how all of which transformed the country in the years of counter-revolution had created a new type of human, besides of course different forms of production, that could by now begin to express themselves conflictually. It was thought it was reasonable to have an approach to post-Fordism that moved from a mixture (to use archaic terms) of structure and superstructure, the point of indifference, the point of perfect concision between what in jargon are called structure and superstructure. It was about looking for ways of being within dependent labour, judging that contemporary forms of dependent work cannot be understood adequately (in its very being productive as surplus value, of course) solely or principally with economic tools, and in a certain measure not even with merely sociological tools.

Contemporary work, because it produces surplus value and not because disembodied, calls for absolutely large equipment, in which are thrown in the middle its cultural forms, its emotive structures, its ethical and aesthetic convictions.

Paradoxically, post-Fordist subjectivity, to be grasped in its hardest core, among many things even more economically relevant, should have juxtaposed with this broadness of tools. There’s a nice quote by the great French epistemologist, Gaston Bachelard, who had said that the many problems and many paradoxes sparked by quantum mechanics should be treated with the most heterogeneous tools.

Quantum mechanics now requires, in philosophical terms, a Kantian concept, at times a Bergsonian concept, at others it requires a medieval concept, and it’s no big deal if they’re so different between them, the point is that it concerns explaining the one problem for quantum mechanics: as such it’s also for post-Fordist labour-power, for post-Fordist subjectivity (it’s not that this formulation makes me very happy, but it’s to understand each other quicker). This is the experience that brings to the collective book Sentimenti dell’aldiquà [Sentiments before the hereafter], that wants of course to be also a radical critique of weak thought, of Italian postmodernism that has been the ideology of winners, the ideology of the defeat of mass movements. Which however, like all true ideologies, has in itself a grain of truth, only that it’s not only deformed, but most of all apologetic, it tends to think that it’s like this and only it can only remain in such a way. Instead, the issue was to bring back the so-called postmodern thinking to its material basis.

The communication society that Vattimo talks about is the deformed and apologetic transfiguration of a real fact, that is, the surplus value produced through language. Thus, this was the dimension the book dealt with, then as usual the text was poor stuff, the background discussions sometimes are remembered with pleasure. So there’s an attempt to work even with different people, many of the usual ones, that are customary good ones, but also many different people. Seminars, discussions, the magazine, some of us work for Il Manifesto [The Manifesto] and try to make a manifesto within Il Manifesto, that is, to make its irrelevant cultural sections a bit more foolish in comparison with all the previous articles. From this the experience of Luogo Comune was born, four issues come out, but it’s a magazine in which the editorial aspect emerges, the discussion, seminars, etc. There was the obvious risk to make the mistake and say more than one thinks, allow me this play on words, because at times one decides consciously to say more than what would be cautious and prudent to affirm, thus to say more than one thinks, if anything to spark off discussion and self-critique: in reality it was an attempt to loosen up a set of categories that could call to account, this time not in allusive ways like at the end of the 1970s, but fully, precisely biting the live flesh of what’s new, the change of paradigm. And that however could prearrange a renewed organisational politics.

The first point is that whichever organisation, as always, is a culture: whoever does not grasp the materialist and material aspects of culture, that to say, that an idea is much more concrete than an ashtray or even a million euros, risks not understanding the issue of any organisational path. The problem was to produce, even quite artificially, frenetically, fabricating key words (general intellect, language and production, exodus), a mental landscape (what’s more concrete than a mental landscape?), in order to bring together some groups, some militant groups, and some militant groups of intellectuals. And that these could begin to draw some practical paths, with cautious experiments, on citizens’ income, on new forms of production, the modernised factory, non-factory labour, etc. Of course there are some difficulties, it takes long time, you have to hit your head and then try in a different way. But the preliminary condition was this web. We have tried first with various groups of militant intellectuals, but since 1991-1992 we have tried precisely with people from Veneto.

The way I read it (then anyone says and is polemic however they want), those from Veneto had two passages, not one: the first when they broke with the continuity with the 1970s and 1980s, and that for me is crucial, that was a moment of great vivacity that lasted several years, a creative one, they felt like gone past a context that was embittered, full of hatred, nostalgic and continuist, in the open ocean; then, instead, the second passage is much more recent, it’s of the last three years, in which they’ve thrown the workerist tradition out of the window, which is a whole other matter.

Of course, what’s the problem with the workerist tradition?

Like all traditions it deserves to be thrown out of the window, but the point is the following: is there something in it that allows us to think through, with maximum amount of radical critique and realism, a critique of post-1989 capitalism independently of utilising socialist realism?

If so, it is the only tradition of thought that in a certain sense had metabolised the Wall since the 1960s, and that perhaps has at least as many or more things to say now than it had in 1969. Only in this sense I speak in positive terms of the workerist tradition, not for its past, more or less noble but not even much: thus, for this capacity to hold together what others by now consider broken up.

The labour movement should be dropped because there’s been socialism, or viceversa a boorish continuity. The second passage that took place two or three years ago is one I understand, because it’s an overly uncomfortable issue, and above all that risks not giving you anything in concrete terms: it’s the central position, the strongest, the only true one, realistic, important from the point of view of understanding things, but if it doesn’t give you anything in political terms it’s useless. There’s then in fact this missed coincidence between tools that actually are the only ones, not within the world of the left and the extreme left, but rather the absolutely only ones that allow to understand in depth what’s happening in all its subtleties, undertones, complications and paradoxes: if however these tools don’t give you immediately something political, in political and organisational terms, you’re in a very uncomfortable position, you’re a wise naked man that stays for some time in the wind, then after a while someone else says: “well, it doesn’t matter”, and makes the second passage.

The second passage is not to attack the Marxism of the labour movement, we picked on that in Genoa in 1967, if for Marxism you had to mean that thing that was the labour movement, the problem wasn’t that. Their passage is similar to that of PDS [Democratic Party of the Left] (structurally similar, but with different content) in comparison with the workerist tradition, because workerism precisely does not allow them to capitalise anything in the short and medium term.

There’s all this history, even of theoretical production, at times even rather rarefied, we didn’t have problems bringing in Wittgenstein or Heidegger if we needed them, with the usual materialist instrumentalism of saying: “if that is useful for this thing, very well, it’s useful for this thing”.

So, there’s this even rarefied production, this theoretical production that between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s had however this finalisation that I call organisational, in a broad sense, then if anything they’re organisations totally unknown in comparison with all the known precedents, alright.

In my opinion this ended around 1994. Meanwhile, it’s understood that we haven’t been tenacious, clever and capable enough; however it’s also understood that there’s a real difficulty in Italy because the cycle of post-Fordist development, started off at the end of the 1970s, could now show the other side of the coin, conflict and forms of organisation, in so far as there have been a series of juxtapositions that somehow blocked and detoured it, the fall of the Wall, the crisis of the Italian political system, that for many aspects is a crisis that derives from deeper issues, it’s a crisis of representative democracy, thus something that in a certain sense would interest enormously a mode of thought like ours. However, it takes opposite forms, this crisis feeds other stuff, the party-business, “leghismo” [North Italian federalist right-wing ideology], etc. When, at a certain point, the other side of the post-Fordist coin could or should have shown itself, its conflictual side, this instead made a turn towards the right, or at any rate it remained like buried under the clamour of the crisis of the Italian political system; this, besides our obvious incapacity, at times even little seriousness, has paralysed for a bigger and more consistent reason this possibility to show the new potentials on the political and organisational level of post-Fordist subjectivity. Then there have been other impulses, more recent attempts to organise.

To speak at a personal level, around 1994 there is like the realisation, the seeing for ourselves something that probably could have been understood even a few years earlier: a political and organisational attempt in totally new conditions, as the result of the counter-revolution and putting itself in the extreme; at the border of counter-revolution it hasn’t worked, it stayed like mangled for a combination of reasons. The comrades that then made DeriveApprodi [DriftsArrivals] participate in Luogo Comune, so there’s continuity. From when Luogo Comune ceases to exist in 1993, one hour more, one hour less, closer or further away, a consistent part of those who made Luogo Comune collaborate or work with DeriveApprodi. There have been many small attempts of political initiative, even very recent ones, but in the whole for me it remains a valid judgment to claim there’s like a freezing, a delay, an inhibition like it happens in dreams, a slumber, and thus a long time before it can be show the other side of post-Fordism positively, conflictually, with the invention of new forms, new paths, new structures and theories of organisation.

Having said this, however, what I did it’s not very clear if it’s not taken into account that since always, and since 1978-1979 more and more centrally and heavily, I was engaged in doing philosophy.

I have always wanted to work on philosophical matters but as a critical Marxist, that is, I always thought that a fundamental problem was to work on a broad materialism, one that is capable of not leaving out of itself fundamental problems like that of language, communication and much more.

Thus, I’ve always worked on these things and of course in an incremental measure, until when they ended up becoming the principal aspect of my activity. It would then be difficult to speak of myself from 1979 onwards without keeping in mind that, even quantitatively, certainly qualitatively, I always dedicated great part of my time to working on philosophical problems and issues, writing and even publishing things where, in my opinion, the problem was born out of the black holes of Marxism, our Marxism, confirmed as outright catastrophic moments in the 1970s, in the overall wealth of the 1970s.

The first things were concerned precisely with this problem: is there a theory of knowledge in Marx? And if this theory of knowledge exists, if it exists or if it existed, does it concern things as they are or is there a way to know the tendency, to know the transformability of the existent? What are the categories to know not only exchange value, but also the leakages from exchanges value?

These were precisely the very first things, that then I placed in the most part in Convenzione e materialismo [Convention and materialism], which basically was written between 1980 and 1982, even if it came out in 1987 for the obvious reason I was in prison, and they later carried on. However, also with an intensity and a centrality to my own time and path, on which I don’t want to dwell on, but that is useful to straighten up right away all that I’ve said. Then, of course, many of these things are intersected, like for example the reflection on a category like that of the multitude, than in the 1600 was opposed to the one of ‘the people’, and from the one of ‘the people’ derive modern political theories. We have said in Luogo Comune: “bear in mind that it’s returning perceptible, pertinent to the current situation, the category of the multitude”.

The category of the multitude is difficult not to conceive and think of it without getting out a series of strictly philosophical questions: what are the linguistic games, the communicative forms of the multitude? What is the category of the individual, of the singular for the many?

The idea of the many makes one think of many singularities that cannot be synthesised in that one that is the State and the sovereign. Well, questions that can be thought (at least as such it seemed to me and as such I could do) through ethical problems and categories, philosophy of language, political philosophy.

Thus, the problem is that there are consistent points in which more theoretical and political reflection ties in with philosophical reflection, but there are also others in which it is not as such. My problem is in the end the one posed by someone who has never been pleasant to us, Engels; at a certain point he took issue to say: “alright, we’ve said some things about materialistic things on production, we’ve said some materialistic things on history: however, shouldn’t materialism have the ambition to cover all the field, thus to cover even the field of science, the field of nature, the field of the senses? Shouldn’t it also be a sensualism, a sensism?”

So, at times they intersect, see the example of the multitude, at other times I dedicated six years to think what could be the materialist status of language, which could be the relation between language and sensible life, which could be the relation between language and the material world. And here we are in certain aspects close and in other aspects far from the kind of political path that I spoke of earlier. I mention these things to say how realistically I divided up my time, especially from a certain point onwards.

There’s an aspect in your analysis that is surely central, that is, about researching the crucial points that are still open or not confronted by a political tradition that is neither exalted nor thrown away, but used to take what we need in order to form a critical re-elaboration in the present and towards the future. Workerism is a category that is here intended in the widest sense. Tronti, for example, claims instead that political workerism ought to be identified with the experience of Quaderni Rossi [Red Notebooks] and of Classe Operaia [Working Class]: after which, with the groups, in his opinion another history begins that has nothing to do with those experiences. In fact, despite there being many and sometimes important discontinuities, there also strong theoretical and political continuities with some paths of the 1970s, and even later ones. In regards to workerism Alquati has formulated a peculiar hypothesis, that is not only historiographical but that could be an important approach precisely in terms of identifying those big crucial points still open today. So, Romano claims that workerism moved within a specific polygon, trying to cope, with differing results, with each of its vertices. A vertex is represented by workers and their subjectivity, something that rarely those interviewed speak even just a little about, or they don’t confront it at all. The second vertex is given by culture, which, in terms of important critical aspects, for many (but certainly not for all) has ended up returning to be a culture that is explicit and humanistic, of Gramscian memory. The third vertex is politics and the political, the great black hole of the workerist experiences, in its multiple attempted pathways. The fourth, finally, is the question about generations and youth. In part you have already said this in your analysis, but to confront the issue in its entirety, which do you think are the bigger open crucial points, central today in the political re-elaboration of the strengths and limits of workerist paths?

The line from Fabrizio De Andrè comes to my mind: ‘if not totally right, almost nothing wrong’. To me it seems that workerism had given a consistency, a rich articulation to Marx’ idea of the general intellect.

This rich articulation can even be retraced, if you want, to some of its own characteristics and solutions: it’s the fundamental score of anything that’s played. For me the fundamental passage has been to work on the crisis (and the ambivalences of this crisis) of the law of value, succeeding in putting into focus quite well, at least in some moments, the double character, in force but not any longer true, of the law of value itself.

Thus, the labour time of the individual (abstract, empty, unqualified, etc.) is not any longer the principal source of the production of wealth, but it is still the unity of measure as it stands. This is a pattern that at times has been like a sort of mad person’s joke repeated more and more schematically; many times, instead, it has been articulated, filled with flesh and blood and it’s a fundamental tool.

And then there’s the general intellect, that as we know Marx mentions once or at most twice in the Grundrisse and who knows what he had in mind, if it was a polemic with Rousseau’s general will or something else entirely: and it’s only an allusion, when instead what was then an allusion is now a positive theory, complete, a general theory. That this theory then might be far away from being sufficient is one thing, but this is a very relevant production. I’m thinking most of all of the moment in which workerism strove not to read anymore the general intellect, like a fixed capital, which is Marx’s version, science and knowledge held in contempt, frozen, clotted in the system of automated machines.

In my opinion workerism, in a certain sense ever since 1969, then in a more conscious way later and in recent years, has instead really tried to think of the general intellect as living labour, and of course not like the erudition of the individual, the single worker may even never have ever read a book in his life, that’s not the point: the matter is that general intellect lives within a cooperative interaction, in very primary way, even more than in the system of machines. This is then a reversal in post-Fordist production even of what is very empirical and visible: the necessity is not to mobilise a particular knowledge, but the generic faculties of the human animal. So, one can speak of the general intellect as being diminished by workerism as intellect in general, the point is precisely that ‘in general’. Meanwhile, it’s been thought as living labour and not fixed capital; not that there is a general intellect as fixed capital, of course, I want to say that the qualifying aspect is the cooperative one, the relational one, the general intellect as an attribute of cooperation.

Without dwelling upon it, in my opinion this is its great strength, in relation to which the scientific term can be used, at any rate charged with realism and charged with effects of truth, with effects of comprehension of the existing.

The point in which workerism instead leaves only black holes is in terms of political theory; this seems to me beyond any doubt. In the course of time, from the 1960s, through the practical revolutionary experiments of the 1970s, then even later and still now, it has even done a good job of destruction, but it never succeeded every time it dared to go beyond.

Of course there have been important attempts, but the limit of workerism is to have never succeeded, not even in the slightest, to think in its entirety the actuality of the general intellect in terms of political theory, that is to say, to think the general intellect (connecting all things, I don’t want myself to also use the word ‘strategic’, it’s only for brevity in writing) as a base for a political theory. There are some things by Tronti, but then he defends himself, in these books, even in La politica al tramonto [Politics at dusk]: in some way he defends, even at the cost of defending Stalin, the fact that he entered the PCI in 1968. Cacciari did not even try this and thus works together with Di Pietro; Tronti, instead, cares about defending himself and so makes this discourse about 20th century politics. However, he puts it in a too generic way and therefore loses the specific point which is instead, eventually even in terms of guilt and workerist responsibility, to not have drawn from the analysis of class composition, its mutations, from the analysis of general intellect, a political theory that was finally a political theory beyond the state, without being a parodic anarchist theory.

There have been all these experiments, even in the 1970s, where there’s been the true setting of practical experiments on the organisational level, and where certainly Autonomia has constituted the general form in which the new proletariat organised. However, every time the thing was fixed in theoretical terms, either there have been terrible aporias that immediately paralysed it, or true returns to the past, true ticks worthy of comparison with general Strangelove on the political terrain. So, on the political terrain, there’s either aporia or Strangelove-ism.

This is said with a very mixed lookout. The thing I understand less in Alquati’s outline is the one on culture: if that remains valid for those who entered the PCI in 1968 then ok, they entered a party that conceived in such manner the relation between intellectuals and politics, so it was automatic that they conformed to it, even if with reservations. As regards instead to the part of workerism that has maintained a more petulant character, more autonomous, more foreign to traditional parties, there have been personal miseries, hitches, incoherence, and compromises, all that you want, but I wouldn’t say that it has reproduced a model of the organic intellectual.

The question is in different terms. The problem some have posed in the second half of the 1950s is the one you’ve highlighted earlier in your analysis, that is how to get out of that closed circle in which Marx, with terrible vision, goes on making a theory of capital and not of a possible exit from it. Facing this large hypothetical knot, some have moved around trying to break with that closed circle not only outside of Marxism, but also outside Marx himself: so there’s been an initial opening towards sociology, phenomenology, but also psychoanalysis and so forth. In actual terms, however, no one has ever posed the question of critically re-appropriating certain disciplinary fields that until then were neglected, such as the objectivism of orthodox Marxism, in a complex political synthesis that would go in the direction of a different science, that in a single enunciation then became working class science. All in all what prevailed, at least generally, even among those who revolved around or sympathised with workerist domains, was instead a model of explicit and humanist culture.

The question of general intellect: in your opinion, how much does it have a capitalist dimension and how much can it be overturned, or is it even in itself a discourse that transforms and moves away from capitalism?

Both of them. The recourse to these generic faculties of the human being is completely a capitalist source of production, knowledge and cognition; and still it’s obviously the only concrete and defined basis for an overturn. With a joke that can be understood within the workerist tradition, it’s what in Luogo Comune was called “the communism of capital”, referred to the socialism of capital that was spoken about in relation to the 1930s, Keynesianism, Fordism, etc., which are the answer to the 1929 crisis and even previously to 1917. The communism of capital means precisely that post-Fordism articulates in its own way that general intellect which would demonstrate how steadily realistic a communist overturn could be.

In the workerist tradition there’s always been this opposition between socialism and communism, not real socialism but an ideal socialism, the application of a universal and equal law of value and so on. However, the exclusive aspects of communism, critique of labour, critique of the State and other things, they seem precisely made but articulated instead in terms of production of surplus value.

In this sense, it’s two-faced. Among many things, I believe that contemporary capitalism, precisely in the post-Fordist sense, has the characteristic of translating in historical, social and even economic terms the most general characteristics of the human animal, which have always been true, also for Homer. So, what has always been true, that the human animal has always been like this, becomes true: that it is a linguistic animal, that it has a certain relation between sensible life and a life that is cognitive and intellectual, that has its own characteristics, that it doesn’t have a specific environment for example, in the same way that a tick has or an alligator or a chimpanzee have, but that has to do with an indeterminate world, in which it never finds its proper way round. These facts, which are even biological, are instead historical and empirical: in this sense they become true, they reveal themselves, they become manifest. It’s precisely what researchers call anthropogenesis: the very genesis of human beings, in their features distinctive from other species, which has always been true of course, only that it never presented itself as a simple concrete phenomenon, empirical, at times even economic. Thus, almost a biological constitution, let’s say, which instead becomes historical determination. This aspect is the great power of post-Fordist capitalism, which however has always been considered the basis of communism. Paradoxically, the idea is that man could live directly and without veils equal to the characteristics of his own species, without the veils of religion, traditional societies or present in the small countryside village where people live in the exact same way for three centuries, but could only live because he is an indefinite animal (so that we can use even a nice definition). Man as an indefinite animal, whilst all other animals have well specified instincts: the tree doesn’t exist for the bird, the branch only exists as a resting place precisely because well defined, the bird always knows what to do. Man is an animal that doesn’t know what he has to do; it’s the only animal that lives within indecision and uncertainty. Is it clear what general things these are? But think about how this living within indecision and uncertainty, this being an indefinite animal, is at the basis of post-Fordism. When people speak about relationality, linguistically, being ready to continuous innovation: what else are they speaking about, if not about the centrality of man as an indefinite animal? To get to the very root of human constitution as such is also the basis of the communist idea, depurated from the concerns of labour movements, from socialist stuff, etc. It’s a tug of war in which the rope belongs to all: this rope can be called general intellect, and when it’s pulled as it happens today almost completely by large businesses, by the production of surplus value, obviously it assumes certain characteristics. That is not to say that this rope remains exactly the same, when one of the two contestants pulls it harder it has certain characteristics, when it’s pulled by the other side it has different ones. To sum it up, this rope is called general intellect. However, post-Fordism sets into motion what has always been man’s underlying condition, its being an indefinite animal, the only indefinite animal, this to me seems realistic.

What can you tell us about Enzo Grillo?

We were friends with him in the 1970s, he was older, but we always stayed together. He was a great friend of De Caro, that we knew less because he was more to himself, instead Enzo was a chatterbox, a man of the dinner table altogether. Enzo is very well read, troubled by the fact that he knew everything and he found it impossible to write. Then I lost sight of him, I don’t think I met him ever again. At some point he really isolated himself, he retired at the age of forty, he went to live outside of Rome, he didn’t send his daughter to school and he was her own teacher. He began making some wonderful translations and he really knew everything. In fact, he tried to organise the dissertations of young people from Potere Operaio who went to University, so that they write thesis on things that to him seemed like they hadn’t been eviscerated and thus could be useful in their whole to working class science. The problem is that when time passes people become embittered, this is part of what makes the indefinite animal.

Grillo and De Caro gave a paper in 1973 at the Serrantini centre in Bologna, entitled “L’esperienza storica della rivista Classe Operaia” [The historical experience of Working Class magazine], and that circulated around mimeographed. From the few fragments that we’ve been able to read it seems like they critiqued that experience, which is in some ways taken up by others, even in the interviews we’re making, that is, a sort of implicit progressivism in certain workerist paths. This does not obviously concern everyone, but if, for example, you look at some aspects of Negri’s path (think of Posse as well as previous elaborations) you see the theory of the multitude (or even before called in different terms) that goes deterministically towards emancipated cooperation and towards which the only problem is the capitalist command that presents itself in the form of a simple parasitic crust, totally unnecessary. This idea of a linear history that always carries on and always improves comes back again.

They didn’t tell us, we’ve already won without noticing! At some point Toni, not that I know them well, should read with less impatience Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, which as we know are perfectly anti-progressivist. At times he mutters they’re taken from the Talmud, that’s not right, whereas there’s in it precisely an element of catastrophe as always possible. I wouldn’t call it progressivism, because that really contains the worst of the labour movement…

There’s a sort of objective immanence in the need for a communism destined to actualisation.

It is immanent, however its immanence doesn’t take away the possibility to reverse it at once, paralysis and catastrophe. But even when observing the most sociological thing, that is, one day of work at the Fiat factory in Melfi, you need to bear in mind the possibility of paralysis and catastrophe, that is, the very same things that might develop a radical transformation of existence can instead secrete the most radical evil; when you think about post-Fordist multitude or whatever you want, it’s necessary to introduce the category of ‘evil’ (clearly intended in a certain way), of the negative. So, the problem has been that workerism critiqued the dialectical method, because dialectics were something for cheats; not that Hegel was a cheat, but it was an unreliable tool. The critique of dialectics, however, in my opinion should not have lead to the critique of the negative, that is the possibility of catastrophe, that things might get totally screwed. I think that workerism and not Calvino were one of the few exportable things from Italy in post-Second World War times: it did some steps in this direction, but perhaps not sufficient ones. That is, there is the possibility to think negativity, evil, disaster, mess, the thing from which you can’t get away with, as something that has a non-dialectical form: it’s not that because you critique dialectics you also have to critique the negative. On this, in fact, an issue of DeriveApprodi will come out on the discourse about the multitude and the negative. The multitude can become fascist. You have to keep in mind that the multitude has within itself the immanence of communism, this can always be said, and I was also speaking about the communism of capital, just to mention how much it became visible to the naked eye…

However that immanence assumed a teleological aspect, an objective destiny of actualisation.

That same immanence is so undirected by necessity that it can result even in radical evil; I obviously use such expressions that I wouldn’t use in public, which are a bit theological expressions and it’s not clear what they mean, but anyhow let’s say the absolute negative, fascism. Marx wrote it in some part (perhaps in a letter to Engels): between the two contestants that confront each other in the long term, on the level of more generations and not merely a few years, it can’t be said if one or the other would win, a catastrophe might well happen. Some thinkers of the 20th century, Marxists but also non-Marxists, took care of it well and it’s a necessary notion. I repeat myself, necessary then even when you judge something that happens in Prague or at the Leoncavallo [Autonomous Social Centre in Milan]. The point to keep in mind is that, beyond the alternatives A and B, there could be paralysis, catastrophe, decomposition, and evil. It is one thing to think of evil in the category of ‘the people’, another thing entirely evil in the category of the multitude, you have to stress the specific forms of evil in the one and the other case, and in relation to the one and the other category: however, it’s evil, there’s this possibility. So, a non-dialectical evil, which would be something to treasure. Cacciari has tried it with those things on negative thought that, in part for a certain cryptic dimension, seemed even to suffer the hypnosis of this great bourgeois notion, like the one of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.: in his case there was this non-dialectical negative, but then it also married certain forms. There have been various attempts, but certainly there’s an open knot. Sure, Toni probably has this kind of Spinozan optimism, like he says, and of course this allows one to see also many things sometimes, to grasp aspects of tendency, it breaks with all the grief of the traditional labour movement that is always full of nostalgia, that would really like that Fordism would still exist. This attitude of Toni or of other parts of workerism allows getting even faster to the point, but then it does so at a high price.

A personality you’ve been close to is that of Lucio Castellano. How would you situate him?

He was intellectually very upbeat and unconventional. I was saying earlier that in the last Pre-print of Metropoli, that came out in 1981, but whose texts were actually already there since 1978, there was an essay of his on work and non-work, that was written in the autumn of 1976 and objectively it’s a very convincing and very foreseeing portrait of the main characteristics of post-Fordist labour and, in the immediate, of the 1977 movement. Then, like others, in the end, he had this anxiety on the black hole of political theory, the fact that there wasn’t a political theory. No one looks for the thing in which it’s said “the State, the Counties…”, no, I’m talking precisely about the most important core of political theory, that it didn’t exist: all the analysis of class composition, post-Fordism, the general intellect or still other issues, even before, they didn’t get to the end of a political theory. Of course, this took him to have a critical taste of the proper workerist paradigm. This transitional period we’ve lived in the past 10-15 years, in which many things were understood and many new categories could be proposed, but there was no relevant political consequence, this march in the desert, makes the space for the impossibility to keep going on psychologically: and so either, like it happened even to good comrades, like the younger ones for example from Veneto, you steer towards PDS because you cannot endure this condition, or, on the most solitary and intellectual level, you’re attracted by a change of paradigm that is also basically about letting go the workerist framework and searching for eclectic and somewhat spurious solutions on the terrain of political theory, since this is not given to you by workerism itself. This has been Lucio’s dimension in the beginning of the 1990s. He had finished writing a book just before the accident, it only needed polishing, and that was exactly the problem: if productions works as such, what political theory should correspond to it? There’s a gap: to this wealth of production corresponds no minimally worthy political theory. Wealth meant in all senses of the term, capitalist wealth, wealth as potential for antagonistic subjectivity. To the complex character that really keeps production in itself, the problem is that there’s a disgusting political theory, even in its critical versions. He had written this book, to which some old writings from Metropoli and also Pre-print were added. And then there’s a book about his memories. Then, the relation with Lucio wasn’t so good in the last years, we argued even within Luogo Comune. We did Metropoli together for a long time just between the two of us, because Piperno and Pace in 1981 were given their passports from the police with the proviso that they would go away from the country, because they could have been put on trial for crimes for which France had not extradited them; so, they took their passports and went to France, where they had all the difficulties of the exile. Lucio and me remained here; we did great part of those five issues of the magazine. Then, instead, in the period of Luogo Comune we weren’t any longer in synch, on the contrary there was a strong tendency to quarrel. He accused me of continuism; I instead accused him to simplify his life, in the sense that is made of the passage, the leap. The most complicated thing is actually the least continuist (of course that’s what I was saying), it was necessary to understand how many things had entered, for example, the concept of production, which previously did not belong to the concept of production: one can even say that production has no central relevance, but to see the same thing it’s one possibility. You can say: “lots of things that previously had nothing to do with work have become work”, or you can say: “work has become an inessential dimension”; you can say both things based on the same elements. So, there were some disputes on this. From the point of view of great moments, he has been inside seminars that have produced the collective book Sentimenti dell’aldiquà, then was present as one of the founders of Luogo Comune, he wrote and collaborated in the first issues of DeriveApprodi. Luogo Comune kept together people that were very different, something that contributed to its paralysis. However, the great moments like frequenting certain circles of discussion are pretty much more or less the same; even the period of the prison experience was absolutely the same, because we were all accused of the same things, we had the same profile case. Let’s say he worked almost exclusively on this theme of political theory, with the book (edited by Hopefulmonster) Il potere degli altri [The powers of others], then even on that text published posthumously by Manifestolibri [Manifestobooks]. Thus, the same words (general intellect as a political source rather than a fundamental element of production, the very word exodus) were also his own but he gave them a declension that was more anti-workerist than I thought proper, and certainly not for reasons of affection towards that tradition.

A somewhat much more complete question than the previous one. Technical composition, political composition and recomposition are three different categories that often are confused between each other or completely not considered by certain theories. Even in regards to the discourse on the general intellect some people (Toni, for example) end up looking mainly at the pretty static dimension of technical composition, interpreting it immediately as antagonist political composition, thus viewing the capacities to work as immediately revolutionary. Often subjective determinants are completely left to the side, the very ones upon which an analysis of political composition and a continuous path towards recomposition should be centred.

Perhaps this was a flaw (if we can call it this way) that Toni had even in 1969, it’s not something new. It derives from this attitude of his to be hasty, to see a tendency as already actualised and thus certainly to skip passages that make the problem of class composition one that is always tenuous, controversial and reversible. However, in my opinion, out of the necessity of being in France, after the defeat, after prison and then even now, Toni tried in the end to outline the margins of the scenery in its entirety rather than look at the centre of the scene, he tried to determine the field rather than see how it could then be passed through. Thus, he tried to show even the logical borders of the situation in which are in, occupying perhaps less energy than he could in the 1970s to the effective passages of class recomposition, trying to indicate the lodestars of the situation. And on this one can either agree or disagree, but the work done by the magazine Futur Anterieur has been important. The analysis of what they called immaterial labour, cooperation and so on, has been a good path; in parallel and independently from us, they had worked on the linguistic and communicative dimension of labour, with a critique of Habermas that touches upon the problem and distorts it with its own dichotomy. The fact is, they came to a halt there, and the same was for the forces they implicated, for the sort of collaborators not only from France that were in it. In my opinion, his attention is always more directed towards understanding, whether right or wrong, certain lodestars rather than truly confront processes of class recomposition, not addressing and often inhibiting their ambiguity and their character.

Which have been, in your opinion, the central names and authors that can be used to break politically with those closures of Marx’s theory of which we spoke earlier?

If anything the great authors are from the social sciences and from philosophy. I think it’s hard to speak of contemporary production without resorting to even an instrumentalisation of philosophy of language. Either we take ourselves seriously or we don’t: if we don’t take ourselves seriously then it’s simply a joke to say that language has been put to work (or however one wants to say it, this doesn’t matter); if we take ourselves seriously this means that some of the categories should be taken not exactly as they are, but retraced with a work of critique and, of course, even one of modification in who thought more in depth the linguistic experience, such as Saussure and Wittgenstein. However, this is not only a problem given by studies I’ve made and things I’ve written, I don’t want to break it up this way, but it’s a kind of necessary enlargement. There’s the great biology, the current one but also the one of the beginnings of the 20th century, that is important for the characteristics of the human animal as such (I deliberately make use of the term human animal for a materialistic reason): it’s as if this sort of essential core of the human animal had come to light especially with post-Fordism.

The Marxian definition of labour power has for the first time actually become true, which is explained by Marx as such: “the sum of all the physical and intellectual aptitudes” – it should be noted, aptitudes are in potentiality – “existent in the corporeal agent”; this definition in a certain sense has never been completely true until now. Therefore, if it is as such, even biology (in this strong sense, not in the sense of biologies) is important.

Then there’s a critical usage of opponents, often opponents are the best interlocutors. Luhmann can be said to be an opponent, no one can deny it; to me Hannah Arendt is an opponent, but many things can be drawn out from one who thought with her own head like Arendt, in terms of problematising, varying, correcting and conversing with them.

Certainly in philosophy, but even in the social sciences and in critical theory in general, some good opponents are worth more in a certain sense than allies that are either mediocre or with whom you are already in obvious agreement. Of course, the worst thing is an opponent that is innocuous, but a disquieting opponent, an insurmountable opponent gives you great possibilities. The same goes precisely for Hannah Arendt: I read her, I re-read her, there’s not even one sentence that I would subscribe to, but many things come out of this friction. The same of course goes for these philosophers of communication and language, I was already speaking of Wittgenstein and Saussure; the same goes for the biologists that think human beings as an indefinite animal, it’s a great strand. It’s important to choose good opponents. I think is important not Heidegger in general but just the one in Being and Time, that would take everyday life in mass society and analyses it as such, and thus brings out some categories that are truly philosophical categories, which however have apparently little to do with philosophy, like chatter and curiosity: these are good things, of course, to eviscerate against Heidegger himself, again we are speaking about opponents. I’d much rather keep a good list of important opponents.

What do you think about Arnold Gehlen?

Gehlen is important, sure: making use of these biologists like von Uexküll and these others, he elaborates to the greatest extent the idea of the human character as unprepared, indefinite, uncertain and undecided. What is it to post-Fordism? An animal that is indefinite (flexibility, plasticity), undecided (always ready for different alternatives), and so forth.

Bruno Latour on ‘Individualising Overlapping Networks’

In his lecture at Goldsmiths on 7th March 2012, Bruno Latour took up Tarde’s critique of Durkheim in their seminal 1903 debate (of which he also recently performed a re-enactment). In his attempt to move beyond the false individual/collective self dichotomy, Latour propounds the idea that the digital makes obsolete this endlessly debated partition, which he characterises as one of the main futile worries still occupying the majority of social scientists to this day: that one should either start with the one or with the whole, as if mutually exclusive. Similarly accused, as Tarde was, for being an individualist (playing into the hands of post-Fordist ideology even), Latour defines his re-search as one of ‘individualising overlapping networks': that is to say, addressing the very features that are present and in common between differing Leibnizian monads.
 
 


 
 
In his proposition to re-examine Tarde’s only-recently translated Monadology and Sociology (2012), Latour is attempting to follow and extend Deleuze’s admittance of a debt to the early 20th century ‘pure sociologist’ for one of his main theses in Difference and Repetition:

difference that would not extend, or ‘would not have to extend’ as far as opposition and contradiction; [and] a concept of repetition in which physical, mechanical, or bare repetitions . . . would find their raison d’être in the more profound structures of a hidden repetition in which a ‘differential’ is disguised and displaced. (Deleuze, 1994, p. xx).

The question raised by Latour, then, might be seen as how to continue to do sociology after our existence as individuals or as peoples is put into disrepute. One might wonder, however, what value sociology holds once its disciplinary borders are opened, and whether its questions and methods still have any relevance within this altered framework.
 
You can listen to the full audio of the lecture by clicking here, including the Q&A session.

Text & recordings by K.W. Molin

Playing Around With Plutonium, by Mark Rainey

Fukushima_Protest_3

“Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?”, asked the poet Jotaro Wakamatsu.  He posed the question in Disappearances, a poem about his visit to the abandoned city of Pripyat which had been evacuated in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.  During his haunting account of walking Pripyat’s empty streets, he continually returned to the theme of Chernobyl being replicated elsewhere:

I wade through tall weeds,
In the playground of an abandoned nursery school,
Where radioactive particles take flight, no doubt,
and my lungs take some of them in
with the air I breath.  No doubt, we’ll see
more cities, more places made to disappear.
My hometown’s disappearance may come today.

He also imagined the Chernobyl exclusion zone being mapped on to his own home in northern Japan.  Wakamatsu is from Fukushima and the poem was written in 1994.  Some have labelled Wakamatsu’s poetry as prophetic, although they are well wide of the mark.  His poems, now collected in the book What Makes Us (2012), were attentive to the landscape and surroundings of Fukushima and its changing features following the installation of the Fukushima Daichii Nuclear Power Plant.  These ranged from abnormalities in plant life that only an inquisitive local might notice, to the detection of Cobalt 60 in an elementary school’s playing field and to Wakamatsu’s own body hair falling off unexpectedly in clumps.  His poem South Winds 2, penned in 2008, reads as a sort of dirge – listing the critical and major incidents at the Fukushima plant that were either covered up or left unreported until 2007.  In this respect, the crisis at the stricken Fukushima Daichii plant was not so unexpected.  Wakamatsu’s imagined mappings of the Chernobyl exclusion zone on Fukushima have now collapsed into the reality of a nuclear meltdown and mass evacuation.

Connections can also be made with the ongoing history of Hiroshima – the first city to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon.  August 6th marked the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city and with nuclear energy now a live political issue in Japan, protests against the nuclear industry took place alongside protests in the city calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  This year’s anniversary saw citizens march on the head offices of the Chugoku Electric Company in Hiroshima which has plans to build and re-commission nuclear power plants in the area.  If August 6th is rallying date for anti-nuclear protest, it also offers reflection on the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima.  During the Peace Memorial Ceremony, held each year, the mayor of Hiroshima reads out a new ‘Peace Declaration’.  Following the tsunami of March 2011, these declarations have also raised concerns over nuclear energy policy in Japan and connected the experience of Hiroshima and the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the current crisis in Fukushima.

For family reasons, I often visit Hiroshima and following the ceremonies and protests on August 6th this year, I attended a low-key event on the banks of the Ota river.  Here Buddhist priests lit incense and chanted in front of a make-shift altar.  Hibakusha related their experiences of the atomic bomb and young Fukushima refugees spoke of having to uproot from their homes and begin a new life in cities including Hiroshima.  The poet Wakamatsu was also in attendance.  His work was read aloud by Arthur Binard and Tarou Yamamoto.  Binard is an American Japanese-language poet and has translated Wakamatsu’s work into English, while Yamamoto is a young and well-known Japanese actor who has joined the weekly anti-nuclear protests outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Tokyo.  He has since received criticism from within the entertainment industry over his activism.  Along the banks of the Ota river, listening to the stories of survivors, evacuees and the work of Wakamatsu read by Binard and Yamamoto, a sort of triad is formed: Hiroshima-Chernobyl-Fukushima.

But a holistic view extends well beyond this.  When Wakamatsu’s question, “Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?” is posed, we must not only consider wartime bombings and plant meltdowns, but also nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining, plutonium production and nuclear waste disposal.  Testing is indelibly linked to colonialism, taking place at national peripheries or colonial sites: the Bikini Atoll, the Algerian Sahara, Northern Australia and Kazakhstan to name a few.  So too is mining. If the term ‘Hibakusha’ can be extended beyond the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to anyone suffering from radiation, then among the first Hibakusha were the Hopi and Navajo people of Arizona and Nevada whose land and people have been used in uranium mining since 1942.  Likewise, both testing and mining have taken place on Indigenous land in Australia. (B. Wongar, 2006)  Staggering financial sums have been poured into the problem of nuclear waste disposal – blowing a hole in the argument that nuclear energy is somehow cheaper than other forms of energy production.  Onkalo, The Finnish government’s deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel, is estimated to cost over €800 million, while the UK government has set aside £72 Billion to decommission the Sellafield plant. (Observer, 2009)  When Wakamatsu’s question is asked, the reply necessitates a consideration of the entire nuclear process, from extraction to disposal, and the human and environmental costs that lie in between.

Below is a link to a lecture by Dr. Bo Jacobs, from the Peace Institute at Hiroshima City University.  Dr. Jacobs researches the effects of nuclear technology on culture and society. As part of this work he conducts ethnographic study on the often isolated communities that have been adversely affected by nuclear weapons testing and technology.  The lecture was recorded on August 4th 2012 at the Hiroshima Jogakuin University.  The lecture is introductory and was delivered to an audience of American and Japanese undergraduates attending a Peace Seminar.  In it he presents and then critiques the dominant American narrative of the development and deployment of nuclear weapons.  Through this he then ties nuclear weapons development to the increasing abstraction of military technology, colonialism and the geo-political balance of power.

References:

“Sellafield: The Most Hazardous Place in Europe”. (2009) The Observer. Sunday, 19 April.

Wakamatsu, J. (2012) ひとの あかし/ What Makes Us.  Translated by A Binard. Tokyo:
Seiryu Publishing.

Wongar, B. (2006) Totem and Ore. Victoria, Australia: Dingo Books.

“We hate humans”: English riots and violence, by J.D. Taylor

Based on a presentation given at the “Return to the Streets” conference at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 28th May 2012.

http://youtu.be/04kqYW2PN30?t=1m20s

People aren’t scared …You locked us up, we get stopped and searched every day, there’s nothing to lose”.- Jaja Soze, Grime Report.

The feelings of having nothing to lose, and taking to the streets to express one’s anger are ancient to London, from the revolts of Jack Cade and the Gordon riots of 18th century, but especially within the 20th and 21st centuries from the 1970s on: Notting Hill 1958, Battle of Lewisham 1977, Chapeltown race riots 1975 – 1981 – 1987, Toxteth 1981, Brixton 1981 – 1985 – 1995, Handsworth 1981 – 1985 – 1991, Broadwater Farm 1985, Reclaim the Streets, the Poll Tax riots, Mayday 2001, race riots in Oldham, Bradford and Harehills 2001, up to the Student Anti-cuts protests 2010-11 and August 2011 England riots – all this not to mention the regular eruptions and battles on streets surrounding football grounds across the UK over this period, or played out in more sectarian contexts in Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. In all instances, disobedience, a simple collective no, takes place in the streets, which are transformed from their daily function of places of residence, shopping, transit, and becoming politicised, militarised battlegrounds. Protest is compelled to take to the streets to exercise and enjoy the strength of its malcontent.

           Images  from Belfast street disturbances, 2010-11.

As with the contemporary riots, the space of the streets, and the looting of the rioters, were charged with accusations of nihilism and criminality, which in hindsight can be more clearly recognised as angry reactions to perceived police discrimination and harassment – hence beyond the obvious attacks on businesses came the more regular and consistent attack on policemen. But such battles, and their celebration as authentic, atavistic, ‘real life violence’, acted out on the streets, are an intriguing faultline to examine the Left’s ambivalent excitement and unease at the dfference of riots, their violence, and possible class explanations for this. Here I’m going to explore the streets as the operating location of revolt in modernity. Taking to the streets implies an atavistic energy, ambivalently lawless and ambiguously political – in such energies, heterogeneous energies, I’m going to look at one interesting instance of the role of style, subculture and youth, in relation to the streets. Skinheads, a violent and defiantly working-class youth subculture of the streets, its British heyday operative from the late 1960s up until the mid-1980s. The most recent riots across England in August 2011 brought news cameras into deprived communities not to film a middle-class sneering renovation of diets or DIY disasters, but burning streets (and wasn’t there a sense at the time that, despite all the political organisation happening, here was ‘real’ authentic revolt to the government?). The riots introduce the streets as the space of protest, of not just having a voice, but exercising that voice in deeds. Taking to the streets is something ventured in a political lecture given by Georges Bataille in 1935, who I think curiously illustrates the left’s ambivalent ideas about violence and resistance. Bataille asked these same questions: what gives these riots on the streets such a sense of ‘real life’, as he would call it, and what are the implications of an authentic, untamed violence for political resistance, when seemingly faced with a choice of boring bureaucratic organisation and spontaneous mob revolt? Yes, these were Bataille’s frames of reference. Crucial to Bataille’s preference for an embodied and animated revolt – against the negativity of bourgeois capitalism and fascism – is style and aggression, traits problematically offered by skinheads. The significance of skinheads and violence as a site of threat and resistance offers a number of potential challenges to a contemporary resistance at the crossroads of either better political organisation, or deeper or more impassioned violence. The unresolved though unforgotten story of the skinheads is one entrance into discussing the allure and dangers of the streets in relation to organised mob disruption.

Let’s now zoom in on Georges Bataille, and his argument entitled “Popular Front in the Street”, originally published in Cahiers de Contre-Attaque 1, May 1936, from a speech given on November 25 1935. For Bataille, the frenzy of Revolutions begin in the streets, composed of a ‘derided humanity’, one fundamentally alienated and negated. Such a derided mass historically has, on occasion, discovered its power and potential on the streets, a power which sweeps away all before it. To quote,

‘Derided humanity has already known surges of power. These chaotic but implacable power surges dominate history and are known as Revolutions. On many occasions entire populations have gone into the street and nothing has been able to resist their force. It is an incontestable fact that if men have found themselves in the streets, armed, in a mass uprising, carrying with them the tumult of the total power of the people, it has never been the consequence of a narrow and speciously defined political alliance.’

The immediate historical context of Bataille’s observation is 1934: France, its radical socialist government facing counter-revolution after its attempts to quell the rot of the Stavisky Affair, which dredged up profound corruption among its politicians and police, leading to the ‘Croix de Feu’ (Cross of Fire) attempted coup, a right-wing paramilitary /ex-veterans group taking to the streets of Paris Feb 6th-7th. Fifteen are killed on the night of the 6th by police in the street fighting. This leads to a coalition of left-wing and Communist groups organising a counter-attack on Feb 12th, with eventually the Popular Front coalition coming to power in June 1936. What would happen next? Bataille’s writings from 1935-40 tended to assume that western democracy was doomed, with only a choice left between fascism and communism. Bataille affirms a communist Revolution, but one that, via his earlier readings of psychoanalysis, Hegel and Nietzsche, a potent cocktail, requires unleashing through the passions – which for Bataille largely involve creating and satisfying desires for sexuality and myth, a realisation of man’s more ‘total power’, whereby such powerful forces can resist both fascism and at the same evade the bureaucratic and desiccated nature of communism, the expression of communism. Popular revolt therefore appears on the streets as the violent semi-fulfilment of a collective libido, couched for Bataille in terms as much religious and solemn as sexual and plain simply socialist. Such ‘instinctive certainty’ of the masses is dramatically played out by the Popular Front, on Cours de Vincennes Feb 12 1934, where among arm-to-arm singing of the Internationale, Bataille detects ‘no longer a procession, nor anything poorly political; it was the curse of the working people, and not only in its rage, IN ITS IMPOVERISHED MAJESTY, which advanced, made greater by a kind of rending solemnity – by the menace of slaughter still suspended at that moment over all of the crowd.’

It is the occupation of streets which has been of such great import for communist and fascist forces, dependent on militarising and militarily-organising members into large numbers, and trooping on marches, to pose a threat to the state, which as in the case here, places police and soldiers on the streets with lethal consequences. For the impatient and desperate, this kind of ‘cursed’, accursed physical conflict has validated struggles. For Bataille, ‘the street’ occupies the place of life opposed to the isolated individual, central to resisting alienation then, a place of real life in action, no longer potential, and occupying its own subversive reality. To quote Bataille: ‘if human reality, or to be more precise, human reality in the street – personally, it is in tying to it all the hope that stirs me that I use this term “street,” which opposes life, real life, to the schemes as well as to the isolation of the absurdly involuted individual’ and the ‘mediocre conceptions and betrayals of conniving politicians’.

The point reminds me of Karl Marx in his account of the 1871 Paris Commune in his ‘Civil War in France’, who was also keen in a contemporary context to extract genuine signs of revolt on the street from other conniving politicians. In the midst of war between France and Prussia, Paris had become armed, its workers declaring autonomy, removing their leaders and disbanding the army, and introducing a elected equal democracy. For Marx, the significance was not so much the workers revolting but how they took power – not just by reclaiming the means of production, but becoming themselves armed, an army – ‘Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a national guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. ‘ And elsewhere, Marx remarks that ‘Paris armed was the revolution armed’. The power of the workers taking power on the streets came in acting like an army – ‘The moderation of the Commune during two months of undisputed sway is equalled only by the heroism of its defence. What does that prove? Why, that for months the Commune carefully hid, under a mask of moderation and humanity, the blood-thirstiness of its fiendish instincts, to be let loose in the hour of its agony! The working men’s Paris, in the act of its heroic self-holocaust, involved in its flames buildings and monuments’.

‘Cursed’, ‘impoverished majesty’ – the repression of Paris armed, 1871.

‘Cursed’, ‘impoverished majesty’ again – Paris unrest, February 1934.

Bataille, writing about revolts on the streets of the same city 63 years later, argues that this ‘brutal convulsion of the masses’ needs to again be harnessed by ‘professional revolutionary activists’ who don’t waste time and energies discussing, but in inspiring its rages and passions: ‘It is evident that if, in general, insurrections had had to wait for learned disputes between committees and the political offices of parties, then there never would have been an insurrection.’ For Bataille, the debate needs to happen in the street, where to quote Bataille again, ‘it means having it where emotion can seize men and push them to the limit, without meeting the eternal obstacles that result from the defense of old political positions.’ But aside from idly dismissing the hard work of political organisation, as the leaders of the Popular Front would’ve seen it, or idly abandoning judgement and understanding to the spontaneous and ‘base’ life of the streets as we might question, what value does Bataille’s position hold?

Well, he argues that we should apply intelligence to the ‘immediate comprehension of real life’, and relieve the intrinsic boredom which lies at the root of the Croix de Feu’s might, which must therefore be relieved by passions. He offers an example we might sympathise with, that the real lessons also come from the boredom of city streets, ‘that there is more to learn in the streets of great cities, for example, than in political newspapers or books. For us a significant reality is the state of prostration and boredom expressed inside a bus by a dozen human faces, all of them complete strangers. For anyone not already hardened by the emptiness of life, there is in this world, which seems to have at its disposal limitless resources, a confusion remedied only by a kind of lazily accepted general imbecility. … The opium of the people in the present world is perhaps not so much religion as it is accepted boredom. Such a world is at the mercy, it must be known, of those who provide at least the semblance of an escape from boredom.. So the question that Bataille challenges us, then, is are we actually bored enough for riots? And the challenge for Communist opposition is to overcome their ‘revolutionary seriousness’, which Bataille equates with ‘stunning boredom’, and bring on a collective exaltation that excites and provokes the operating engine of history, the working masses themselves, inspired by empty, desperate streets. Bataille ends with arguing for the masses to be put to work and made ready for combat from a left-wing revolutionary perspective: ‘We must contribute to the masses’ awareness of their own power; we are sure that strength results less from strategy than from collective exaltation, and exaltation can come only from words that touch not the reason but the passions of the masses.’

      

Photographs from Nick Knight, ‘Skinhead’.

It is violence, boredom and armed conformity that connect us much later to a collective posturing that marks the alienated reclamation of streets as politicised territory of authentic life. Their anti-intellectualism poses some problems for how a political reclamation works for the streets however. Nick Knight photographed the skinhead revival in London’s East End over 1980-81, a style that had come into being out of a mix of hardened mod fashions mixed in with West Indian rudeboy influences from 1968 on (common love of reggae and ska, hard-wearing clothes for fighting and identity). The skinhead style could identify young men from disparate working-class backgrounds, style giving a unity to otherwise bored and alienated young men. This quote from Ian Walker on seeing 4000 skinheads at a football match in 1968, a new style: ‘They all wore bleached Levis, Dr. Martens, a short scarf tied cravat style, cropped hair. They looked like an army and, after the game, went into action like one.’

Notion of army and violence is most significant: skinheads were to be feared, and wanted to be feared. At a time of relative prosperity, this was one style based on a strict conformity and celebration of a very specific style style (Ben Sherman, Levis sta-press, Dms, cropped hair – anti-hippy), and recognition through violence, through firms allied to football clubs whose real motivation was violence and pleasure (comparable to later and earlier gang formations). The increasingly homogenised streets of 1960s and 1970s Britain, subject to technocratic social planning now deceptively eulogised in Brutalist beatitudes, such homogeneous, increasingly privatised spaces were erupted by skinheads, be they outside a London tube station or outside a football ground. Football violence begins from early 1960s, made possible in part by relative affluence of working-class youth who could afford not just to go to home games, but to travel to away fixtures too. As Nick Knight puts it in his classic collection Skinhead: ‘Football was the major event of the week. It offered all the excitement of an adventure with “yer mates”, the chance to display fanatical loyalty to your club, to prove your hardness and win the admiration of your friends. Clashes with the police and opposing supporters, and taking part in the ritual songs and chants of the football ground, together with the opportunity to get drunk and run amok, provided the sort of power and excitement which is normally denied to working class youth.’ Football became not just a tribal hierarchy and social bond among young men, but a kind of battle, not just between the players, but between fans.

             

           

Dick Hebdige, who later defines subcultural studies as it were, also writes on skinhead culture. After interviewing one young skinhead, Harry the Duck, he outlines the skinhead style, one characterised by a convict-like menace and a social displacement and disenfranchisement: “This is England! And they don’t live here”: ‘The dance of Skin is, then, even for the girls, a mime of awkward masculinity – the geometry of menace. For skinheads are playing with the only power at their disposal – the power of having nothing (much) to lose. The style, in other words, fits. Contrary to the media stereotype of the mindless skinhead thug, it has its own logic, its own rules and reasons. It makes its own kinds of sense. For Hebdige, two obsessions dominate the style: being authentic and being British.’ The title of Hebdige’s essay comes from another skinhead he interviewed in the East End, the ‘they’ not referring to black or Pakistani communities, but the middle classes who condemned their patriotism as racism. A rejection of humanism that could be co-opted into popular political movements – “no one likes us, and we don’t care” of Millwall; “we hate humans”, a Manchester United fans chant of the 1970s, after being labelled in the press as ‘animals’.

The danger with the alienation and anger of skinhead culture was its tendency to self-victimise too. As Hebdige argued: ‘Spurned by the Press, subject to unprovoked and vicious assaults by immigrants and policemen alike, denied gainful or meaningful employment by a heartless State, barred from the domestic hearth by severe, unyielding parents, the skinheads often see themselves as victims of almost Biblical proportions – as a stricken race of Jobs, as modern wanderers cast out into a cheerless world … And, as with all myths, there’s a kernel of truth in the skinheads’ perception of themselves as outcasts. They aren’t welcome anywhere. They are denied any useful role in the present. … They have no place in the future either (except at the bottom in the dirty, dead end jobs or at the back of the lengthening dole queues). So instead they turn to the past, to an idea of what the unspoiled working class community might have looked like in its classic phase before the War, before the bombs, bulldozers and planners together swept away the old slum environment with its maze of narrow streets, its self-contained economy of tenements and factories, corner shops and pubs, and its equally complex, ingrown network of grannies, uncles and lifelong “mates”.’ A symbolic recovery of authenticity for a working-class perhaps denied that, a nostalgia too. Exercised in a style, but above all in a violence that reclaims the streets, albeit to express a thwarted and vicious rage. One that, as in Bataille’s analysis, or in the contrary attempts at reading the recent riots, isn’t political. As Hebdige puts it, ‘Though they may be, at times, loosely allied to a particular kind of politics, that alliance is uneven and transitory. … [but] Most skinheads (like the majority of young people in Britain) couldn’t care less about organised politics of any kind.’

                  Images by George Plemper of Thamesmead residents – see end.

Hence the significance of skinhead culture coming to the fore from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Britain’s working-class urban communities were intensively demolished and relocated in suburban estates like the showpiece estate-towns of the Evelyn Estate, Pepys Estate, Heygate and Aylesbury Estates, Thamesmead, Downham, Mottingham, Eltham, and to a lesser extent Forest Hill, Brockley, to give just local examples. The photographer George Plemper’s 1970s images of Thamesmead characters are particularly interesting in this regard – Thamesmead was very much an alienated town, lacking transport connections and public amenities – and Plemper’s work is a haunting and brilliant record of working-class life on a Brutalist Estate (Plemper was a teacher at the nearby Riverside School). Some are punks and skinheads – most are not – but in all is a boredom and discontent of a generation told, in the midst of power shortages, political strikes, and later riots, that they’d ‘never had it so good’, to use Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase from 1957. These were alienated identities – hence their parodied style of an authentic British identity in oversized boots, aggressive and defiant personas and racist language directed at Asian immigrants. It’s a response to alienation and not having a sense of future, and having a displaced past also. As Dick Hebdige underlines, the response is a celebration of being authentic and being British.

But this kind of youthful violence isn’t like the ebb and flow of the tide, awaiting some magic reawakening or pied piper of Hamelin to lead the youth back out onto the streets. Specific strategies over the last thirty years have made skinhead violence more difficult and impractical, have privatised it, divided it, removed it from the streets and outside the capital. Special mention must be made of football violence, a significant phenomena too nuanced to comment on here, but of which new activities for taming and managing ‘hooligans’ were developed in a war setting – banning fans from certain areas, stop-and-searches, significant to police conduct since. The curiosity of football violence too was how it escalated and subsided with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and how different forms of state management were brought in to repress these movements and regain the streets – further research is needed. But also events like Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, whereby 96 football fans were crushed to death, and a further 766 injured. This crush specifically occurred because of the high security fences placed to separate fans from the pitch to avoid invasions and missiles being thrown. Although caused by overcrowding grounds and, argued the 1989 Taylor report, a fundamental lack of ‘police control’ led to the introduction of all-seater ticketed stadia, and a marketised family focus into football which in effect pushes fandom into pubs and into the home, increasingly the most meaningful setting of social interaction and engagement. It was only a year after the 1989 Disaster that Sky Television was set up, with The Sports Channel offering live England football to the nation – at a price. All this fits within a privatisation of public space to manage this potentially dangerous alienated youth.

The new leisure industries siphoned off alienated workers into domestic docility and discontent, meted out less and less in actions on the streets. How could they, when for suburban populations the streets themselves are further removed, and public action increasingly abstracted into online exchanges? A question then is why streets are necessary as a media for expressing political unrest? And boredom increased, but is allayed again in the ever-cheapening and isolating leisure-entertainment industries, so far removed from the streets except when they too become part of the spectacle that one races sports cars down or machine guns bad guys down. Are we bored enough? Or is boredom not simply enough? We enter the melancholia of critical theory, of Benjamin’s Work of Art, for how much longer will the spectacle of their own impotence excite the masses? Or to quote Primo Levi, quoting Hillel the Elder, ‘If not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?’ And so the streets, that place of carnivalesque anger, festivity, desire and frisson, as continental philosophers and Marxist geographers might eulogise, should also be understood in a counter-history of style, violence, sex and alienation. A public space, perhaps in being the site of what is deemed unsavoury, alien, tasteless or criminal to public discussion. As Jaja Soze said at the start of this paper, there’s nothing to lose – the skinheads felt this, and clutched vainly onto a parody of authentic British identity – but where there’s nothing to lose, beyond smashing police and raiding American chain stores, what styles and desires are on offer to gain?

In the final part, what can we gather from the decline of skinhead subculture and the end of the lingering threat of violence which typified the 1970s and 80s? Well, that as Bataille posed at the start, revolution might only be contagious and effective so long as it inspires passions and is not boring. This might separate hippie from skinhead. If critical theory’s task is to analyse and criticise the conditions of capitalism and its hegemonic management of the working class, then theorists should ask: are our politics so boring? What styles, animations, games and passions could be unleashed to tap into and politicise this ever-existent, mostly passive but teeming, waiting population?

J.D Taylor’s forthcoming Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era will be published later in 2012 with Zero Books. He co-edits Nyx, a Noctournal, and is a recent Masters graduate of Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies. http://independent.academia.edu/JDTaylor

References.
- Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939. ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
- Collins, Michael. “Photographic Memory: How a teacher became the photographer of working-class kids”, Guardian 14 May 2008 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/may/14/communities.society?INTCMP=SRCH [URL last accessed 03/8/12].
- Home, Stewart. Red London. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994.
- Knight, Nick.  Skinhead. London; New York; Sydney: Omnibus Press, 1982.
- Marx, Karl. “Civil War in France”, in Marx. Later Political Writings. ed. and trans. Terrell Carver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Oldfield Ford, Laura. Savage Messiah. London: Verso, 2011.
- Plemper, George. “(Just) a moment in time” – see the vast inventory of Plemper’s photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7718785@N06 – [URL last accessed 03/8/12].

Nyx 7: Machines is now in print, order now!

After a successful launch at the Old Police Station, Deptford, Nyx 7 is now available to order.

 The seventh Machines issue of Nyx, a Noctournal is £10 from the Nyx website, including a pdf copy. Postage additionally costs £2 within the UK, £3 within Europe and £4 rest of world. Or purchase the pdf for £5.

Nyx #7 + UK postage £12
Nyx #7 + EU postage £13
Nyx #7 + rest of world postage £14
Nyx #7 – just pdf £5

Read the editorial.

Issue 7: Contents

Editorial by Nicholas Gledhill, image by Zoe Hunn

Nyx essays
Speed Machines by Benjamin Noys, images by Mark Soo
Ecologies of Machines: Commodities and Contribution by Sy Taffel, images by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez
The Dehumanised Citizen: Politics versus a Machine-like Existence under the Pretext of the Greek Crisis by Sophia Kanaouti, images by Sinikka Heden
Anxiety Machines: Continuous Connectivity and the New Hysteria by J.D. Taylor, images by Caroline Yiallouros
Accentuate the Positive by Claudia Firth, images by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
The Neoliberal Time Machine: a Device to Map Capitalism? by Yari Lanci, images by Jarek Piotrowski
Answering Machines: Video Games and the Bathos of Machinic (mis)Communication by Rob Gallagher, images by Alice White
Desiring and Destruction: Rosemarie Trockel’s Painting Machine by Katherine Guinness, images by Rosemarie Trockel and Peter Patchen
Deconstructing Sex Machines by Niki Duller and Mon Rodriguez-Amat, images by Alina Dolgin and Magdalena Suranyi
Game of Drones: Cubicle Warriors and the Drudge of War by Amedeo Policante, images by Peter Patchen
Resistance through the Algorithm: Saudi Arabian Anti-proxy Activities by Chiara Livia Bernardi, images by Evan Saarinen
The Ancient Workshop of Potential Literature by James Burton
The Anaesthetist Worship of Potter Liturgy by the N+6 Madame and the Shorter Oxford English Difference
Abstract Machinism and Synthetic Thinking: Outlines for a Machinic Materialism by Jon Lindblom, images by Space Sound Painting Machine


Nyx interviews

Bernard Stiegler: Call for Attention by Sascha Raschof
Michael Taussig: Notes from a Conversation by Kevin W. Molin, images by Centrefold
Luciana Parisi: The Holes in the Machine by Nicholas Gledhill, images by Re(mix) S.A.M.S


Nyx reviews

Howard Slater’s Anomie/Bonhomie & Other Writings by Steve Hanson

Nyx, a Noctournal
Issue 7 ‘Machines’
ISSN 1758-9630

7 FLYER 2

NYX 7 LAUNCH PARTY!

Nyx, a noctournal invites you to celebrate the forthcoming launch party for Issue 7: Machines. Continuing our twice yearly journal of philosophy, art and cultural studies,this new issue is the biggest and most ambitious Nyx yet, featuring Bernard Stiegler, Luciana Parisi, Michael Taussig, Benjamin Noys and many more great writers and artists sharing their thoughts on things technological.

Alongside these literary and visual temptations Nyx, the goddess of night, will also be offering an evening of sensory explosions – live music, djs and visual installations from art collective The Chess Club, all on the theme of Machines. Plus your chance to get your copy of Nyx 7 at the special launch night price of £5. All this will be taking place in the abandoned cells of the Old Police Station in Deptford, London (2 mins walk from New Cross Station) on Friday the 1st of June.

Exhibits will include:

Cell 1:

Nyx Magazine Launch + Space Sound Painting Machine (sculpture), Catharina C.Golebiowska

Cell 2:

Judith Spangs interactive Light-Sound-Installation “Just Whistle” (tbc)

Cell 3:

RoboCup – 3D Humanoid Soccer Simulation League
Bold Hearts is a RoboCup team from the University of Hertfordshire (UH), UK.
3D screen simulation

Cell 4:

Drawing Machines – artist performances:

-Simon Schäfer – printing live performance

-Laura Kuch – drawing machine / installation

-Linda Antalova – drawing live performance

Plus in the main bar area live musical performance from The Sonic Manipulator, DJs, film screenings and various other attractions as yet to be decided.

Pre-launch barbecue in the courtyard of the Old Police Station from 4pm. Launch/Exhibition from 6pm to 11pm.

Entry is free.

http://www.nyxnoctournal.org
http://www.theoldpolicestation.org

All welcome! Please forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

Cheers,

The Nyx Team.Image

Audio: Stiegler Media Philosophy Lecture Series

Follow the link below to get the full audio recordings of lectures 1-4 of the 5 lecture ‘Media Philosophy’ course delivered by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler at Goldsmiths College, University of London in February/March 2012. Lecture 5 has been postponed and will be held on 2nd May. We’ll put up a link to it after that.

Stiegler analyses and critiques work by Derrida, Deleuze and others in order to elaborate on the concept of bêtise (stupidity) in relation to his own theories about the dangers of monetarism and marketing, the pharmacological nature of technology and the responsibility of the University and educational institutions to counteract the ‘systemic stupidity’ currently embedding itself in society.

http://soundcloud.com/katalogx

“Darkness is Us Falling, When He Opens…”, by J.D. Taylor

IMG_0681

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC16FJTI6XM

On the news, Prince Harry drinks rum with foreign dignitaries as his brother forms the bulk of the Malvinas occupational force. The national police forces are being privatised, with state policing functions being sold to private security firms already running prisons, following a thirty-year project in transport, utilities, healthcare and local government. A boy is stabbed by a bus garage I used to wait at daily going to school, just another recent in a series of south London stabbings. On a community radio station, young black men discuss a conspiracy I’m increasingly hearing about, the government introducing guns into working-class black communities. They don’t need to – in times of desperation, negation and scarcity, competition increases. Life becomes more desperate, its preservation less valuable. One’s own life seems worth little, so who gives a shit if I start beef or shank someone? I go on the radio and talk about masculinity, acting male depression, and suicide. People affected directly by the issues call in again.

“Baby you would fall in love” repeats through the title-track of the new Kindred EP by south London musician and producer Burial, aka Will Bevan. It hits the intent listener again later in the third and final track of this grand EP, Ashtray Wasp, lasting an epic 12 minutes. The music of Burial always seems to distil some spirit of the times. It’s the only contemporary music that one goes back to and re-listens again and again well after its release. Everything else seems similar, anodyne, quickly replaced like well-packaged artisan sandwiches, filler by professionals for people with no time or attention. Funny thing, when the sound itself since his first South London Boroughs EP (2005) and the breakout self-titled album (2006) haven’t seen a marked development in this sound. Still the same Playstation and 1980s movie samples, heady bass, rumbling metallic clipped beats and serotonin-depleted house music style, the snatches of female vocal usually revealing some inner secret or doubt. The second album, Untrue (2007), further mapped out this distinctly London sound, tracks named after McDonalds and nightbuses, placed where we somehow became adults without ourselves or the landscape changing, without anything improving or shifting, the colours remaining similar, if at times more violent, darkening. Seven year old birthday party in Camberwell McDonalds: personal experiences of an old but deep-etched nostalgia for some hope left behind in childhood caught in Bevan’s records. A second-generation raver, Burial sounds sometimes like an archivist for old jungle and two-step records, for spending all night playing mega drive games. A doubt that doesn’t presume any solution except what emerges out of the music, what again makes you feel. Rhythm and the heart again make you feel, and that glowering feeling kicks you back into play.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYOkaOU1T0U

“There is something out there”.

Kindred came out several weeks ago, available through download only, recommended to get via Hyperdub website. Like all of Burial’s music, it’s been an underground and online phenomena, shared by word-of-mouth. The music here marks an up-tempo development – the turn at the end of Loner, like the collaboration with Four Tet in 2009 or the Street Halo EP last year: Burial mapped out a particularly dark space on the first two albums that he seems reluctant to revisit, a black sun that inevitably (where else, we all feel this, it’s in us…) re-emerges in the music but is eclipsed again. Ashtray wasp reawakens and pulses, “I want you”, “I used to belong to you” injected into an otherwise frozen urban soundscape.

“Darkness is us falling, when he opens”: the vocal’s incomplete. Listen to it in Ashtray Wasp, and listen again. Ashtray wasp tears us up and disappears, the intensity of the track building and disappearing, soon returning with more dizziness. Music only for night-times, the only time when we have time for creative activities, for thinking. Work, scheming and stresses belong to the day. The music often inspires comparisons to riding nocturnal public transport, certainly its intention, but there’s another sound of intense obsession and concentration with manipulating sound to achieve this immersive bass, a frozen volcanic sound within lonely closed doors and alienated bodies. Public transport is perhaps the only common identity Londoners have, the city lacking borders and lasting only so far as its Transport for London connections allow. Dreamt ghosts in moments of stolen sleep, “we can’t fight this feeling”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=555XMqqDYtU

What makes this melancholy and doubt-tinged sound so timely? Unlike other grime and garage producers who have arisen during the last five years, Burial’s sound isn’t characterised by a warlike swagger and paranoid urban beats, but instead bya tangible reflectiveness and solitude. The sorrows of young Werther, Jude the Obscure, Raskolnikov and 1984’s Winston are known perhaps not in name but certainly in feeling to generations of young people with no obvious place or purpose. It can also be a particularly male phenomena, and particularly wanky, much like music and musicians, but it’d be bad to deny how important and addictive these novels and feelings are, and can speak to a person more than theory or polemic. This doubt is more a social than political phenomena,yet the uncertainty and potential of not knowing, of not being sure of all the answers, is one of the most creative and character-forming spaces one can discover.

On a collective scale, this uncertainty and melancholia could motivate a new culture beyond paranoid violence and neoliberal ego-junk. The limits of contemporary Garage and UK Hip Hop could be, beyond musical originality, caught in the focus on the individual and on self-esteem. A parody of yuppie egotism played out on community radio stations. In celebrating only the name and the status of the individual, his power, meaningful solidarity or engagement in ideas becomes increasingly fractious. Caught in a circle, dog chases tail.  What is there for young people to take up, use, or believe in around Kilburn, Tulse Hill, Wood Green, or Thornton Heath?  Little. Neither are they passive victims of circumstances, but from the conversations I’ve had and heard with community workers in these areas, as well as my own observations, there’s also a bored opportunistic nihilism, alienated and alienating.  After all, feeling alienated or ‘not at home in this world’, as Paolo Virno has it, isn’t just a fault of the world, but might also be a failure of imagination amongst the alienated. Being unable to relate to others, or relate to ideas and values, is an effect of mass social deprivation induced by decades of neoliberalism in Britain, but it’s also something alienated young people are responsible for. Beyond three days of festivity and Footlocker firestarting last summer, years of decline, depression and nothingness. No clear answers emerge out of this, as darkness is us falling and certainties disappear into the fog. The crackle of Burial’s sounds, a deliberate hark-back to the lost and listened-through peripheral sounds of vinyl records, takes momentary refuge in a time now passed, the indicator of melancholia, perhaps the most central feeling of the contemporary era.

Among white middle class kids, those who disproportionately represent the emerging intelligentsia, Burial and dubstep or UK Hip Hop is sometimes derided as trendy, as an indulgence into black British exotica. Perhaps there’s a truth in that’s how it’s consumed. I ask a friend what they think of the new record: “Burial is just over loved ambient bollocks” comes his curt one-liner response. But dismissing what one doesn’t understand by its perceiving bad motive, such as “trendy, hipster, pretentious” are common criticisms heard of anything remotely interesting. Violence, anger, depression and uncertainty are by no means new fault-lines of modernity, but their feeling is deepening. Music programming is one manifestation of this: there are plenty of other recent cultural phenomena to choose from. These tracks glow deep inside a dark place. I want you. That feeling makes one want to stick around a bit longer, re-listen compulsively over and over, make mixtapes and create, follow on through a dark night to see where the morning might take us. “Alright bye”.

J.D. Taylor is a writer from south London, whose forthcoming ‘Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era’ will be published by Zero Books in mid-2012. Blogs at www.drownedandsaved.wordpress.com.

Night Shift, by Kevin W. Molin

  

3am.

I should really be sleeping. Alarm’s at 8am sharp, a whole day work’s looming, and yet procrastinating rest is still too appealing, even more so with this laptop’s enticing diversion to haphazardly look at random pictures of random people and feed a relentless informatic gluttony for the latest update. 15 tabs open, 5 applications running, each with separate files that need saving, storing, converting, embedding, backing, transferring… This machine is straining me or I am straining myself through it; but once I’m asleep, it will still be working, downloading the night away.

 

Pause.

 

It’s partly a conscious choice to write this blog contribution in the night, to feel its atmosphere so as to recount powers I think it holds. With my body clock ticking, there’s a whole other energy right now. I can hardly find time to write with free rein in the day, partitioned and interrupted as it is by emails, requests, meetings, trains, timesheets, plans, expectations and templates. Time’s a precious commodity indeed, that does little harm to fetishise: the less you spend, the less you have to work; the more hours taken back or stolen, the better.

Jacques Rancière surely must have spent several nights in the archives writing his PhD thesis, published as La Nuit Des Prolétaires (officially translated as ‘The Nights of Labor,’ though more appropriately ‘The Night of Proletarians’), researching what 18th century workers were up to before the times of revolutions. As with any of Rancière’s works, the trick is the expected one: to take words already chewed over and over and oft invoked to convey some ultimate truth – such as, ‘proletarians’ – and to alter always-contestable co-ordinates of meaning.

What he ‘discovered’ is nothing more/less than an expedient for ‘weav[ing] a tale’ of a ‘few dozen or hundred laborers in their twenties around 1830’, workers who ‘no longer tolerated the intolerable’, not very self-conscious of their alienation, still awake when they should be asleep, precisely because they could not bear not so much poverty but the constant subordination to daytime demeaning demands. And thus, the night of proletarians is ‘a harmless and imperceptible interruption of the normal round, one might say, in which our characters prepare and dream and already live the impossible: the suspension of the ancestral hierarchy subordinating those dedicated to manual labor to those who have been given the privilege of thinking. Nights of studying, nights of boozing’ (1989, viii).

Should Rancière be taken seriously? Should the night be taken literally? Does this tale prevent one from taking such breaks during broad daylight, switching off the lamp and drawing the curtains? There’s no question that by ‘labouring’ at night, one becomes more inclined to doze off when required to re-perform daily certain(ly) ‘intolerable’ functions – to ignore the very blinding light fixating the very distinction between work and leisure. One should be very conscious not to confuse the tale with the ‘true’, at all times.

For more on the theme of the night- see Nyx 3

What is Industry? Stiegler, Mollona, Ribault & Lash

An excerpt from the conference Autoproduction: Dialogues in Critical Political Economy held 22nd February 2012 at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

autoproduction

Patricia Ribault (Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Design, Reims)
Bernard Stiegler (Centre Pompidou)
Scott Lash (Goldsmiths, Centre for Cultural Studies)
Mao Mollona (Chair – Goldsmiths, Anthropology)

Discuss the question “what is industry?”

Autoproduction: Dialogues in Political Economy

The (double-dip) recession of 2008 to the present has turned into what is technically a depression.

The UK is not likely to reach 2007 levels of GDP until 2015: worse than the 1930s depression, the last time it took seven years to reach a previous peak GDP was in 1832.

The central responsibility of the finance sector for this crash has signaled the urgency of industry and production. Given the dominance of China and the BRICs in the traditional sectors, what way forward for the UK and Europe? In an information age, what model of the industrial can make sense? What kind of critical political economy of the industrial?

At this point we need to think of the possibility of autoproduction. Autoproduction is the possibility of a mode of production in which the work of design and work of fabrication are fused. In which the means of design are also the means of production. At stake are dedicated, singular products, working in close collaboration with product users. In which autoproduction becomes a co-production.

Patricia Ribault, who has originated this idea and practice at ESAD in France, will lead off this dialogue, followed by interventions from Bernard Stiegler, Scott Lash, and Mao Mollona in the Chair.

Part of the Centre for Cultural Studies Series: Interventions in Critical Political Economy.

Monsters inc: Bread, Circus and Botox, by Mila Volpe

Hang Mioku, Korean plastic surgery addict who injected cooking oil into her own face

Blood, gore, pulled flesh and flayed skin. Once the description of bloody battle in the gladiatorial arena, these words now describe a scene from the most recent episode of Pushy & Proud: Botox Mums on Sky Living. The show documents mums in Britain who are not only proud of their own complex (and often cringe-worthy) relationships with plastic surgery and other cosmetic rituals, but are also pushing their young daughters to prescribe to the same transformational regimes. One mum, Sarah, known as “The Barbie” around her town, has already purchased her seven-year old daughter Poppy a voucher for breast augmentation. The show is certainly not the first of its kind, there have been reality shows akin to this for a couple of years now (remember The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210?). Gazing into the screen, the new amphitheater of licensed cultural violence, we are witnessing the age of biotechnology and its promise of monsters.

With plastic surgery steadily on the rise each year, the question is not whether horrific mistakes and botched jobs will happen, but how we should respond to them when they do.  This is one of the questions being asked by anthropologist and Columbia University professor Michael Taussig, who rocked the academic establishment with such books as My Cocaine Museum and Law in a Lawless Land. In his new book, Beauty and the Beast: The Monstrous Side of Plastic Surgery, Taussig explores the terrors of the knife versus the tortures of one’s perceived flaws, and what’s more, the morbid fascination with it when it all goes terribly, terribly wrong. As with many of his books, he focuses on the manifestation of this morbid fascination in Colombia, but the trends undeniably do not stop there.

Remember Heidi from the American reality TV hit series The Hills? While you may remember her bubbly personality you’d have a harder time recognizing her now, as over the course of the series she became heavily addicted to plastic surgery and morphed into something straight off the shelves at Mattel. Instead of being more fun to play with however, Heidi states that she regrets the multiple surgeries as it is now painful for her to run or even hug. (Insert sad face emoticon here). Viewers watched on season after season in horrified delight as Heidi became more and more “perfect”, having had 12 surgeries at just 23 years of age.

It is a troubling phenomenon that is getting harder and harder to ignore. As biotechnology promises new ways to enhance and perfect one’s corporeality, it also brings with it the promise of mistakes and expressions of monstrous beauty. In tough economic times, people looking for a quick fix are not always thinking about the rise in medical negligence claims and the simple fact that the industry is still largely unregulated. As medical negligence specialist Edwina Rawson of Charles Russell solicitors in London says, ’at the moment, you could have a bowel surgeon setting up to operate on someone’s face and it would be impossible to know’.

As shocking as that may be, equally disturbing is the number of people taking matters into their own hands. Take the now infamous case of Hang Mioku, the Korean woman so addicted to cosmetic surgery that she resorted to injecting cooking oil into her face when doctors refused to operate further on her. Her grotesque disfiguration is a warning call to all those who bite the line of makeover culture, staring longingly in a trance, eyes glazed over, at the alluring before and after images without smelling the rotten bait.

The logic at work in makeover culture equates a transformation of the physiochemical body with a positive transformation of one’s lived experience of their body and self-esteem. The use of instrumental biomedical technologies to improve the “surfaces” of one’s being, whether in an image (i.e using photoshop) or in the flesh (i.e cosmetic surgery), cannot alter all of the multiple realms of experience. This oversimplified logic ignores the proprioceptive senses of the knowing body and the intensities of affect that can override the visual systems of perception. This includes ignoring the possibility of transgenerational haunting and transcorporeal trauma transmission (see Grace Cho, 2008) that moves beyond the registers of the visual and the cognitive.

I am truly haunted by the monster spawn of extreme cosmetic regimes. They have prescribed to the false promises of technology and beauty: buying into the allure of experiencing anything you want, becoming whomever you wish, or purchasing whichever cultural, sexual, or spiritual experience desired.

But certainly not without paying the price.  And we watch. So, this battle for an impossible beauty is fought and sold as a bloody spectacle to the masses. Not a far cry from the coliseum. These new grotesque gladiators are largely slaves to “perfection”, few will become celebrities, and even fewer still will get out free.

Amanda Lepore, self confessed cosmetic surgery addict and New York celebrity images from http://www.worstcosmeticsurgery.blogspot.com

Mila Volpe is a writer from Toronto, Canada. Her research intrests include biotech art, the theatricality of power and the corporealities of structual violence. The current issue of Nyx is concerned with the MONSTROUS. Find out where to buy it here.


Photos 08.08.11 141

Love, by N.G.

As the pointer on the yearly wheel of bullshit settles once again on Valentine’s Day, it seems worth commenting on a society confused about Love.

Nearly a year ago a large number of people, mostly young, broke off from a heartbreakingly futile TUC march and occupied Oxford Circus. I took this picture on my phone. Why we were there and what happened next has been written about exhaustively and doesn’t need going over again here. What I’d like to write about is an atmosphere. Not one of aggression and intimidation, as judges, media, and politicians would have you believe, but one characterised instead by the marked absence of the violence that normally lurks at the heart of our daily lives.

Here we all were on the busiest shopping street in Europe, right in the middle, literally, of ‘the Market,’ but everything had changed. For once, nobody was trying to sell us anything (in fact we were categorically not allowed in any of the shops), nobody was telling anyone where they should be, or what they should be doing. Business as usual was on pause. The relentless grinding wheel of subjection, exploitation, boredom and alienation was suspended.

Oxford Circus is usually a hostile place, not a place meant for stopping and looking around but a place for passing through quickly, credit card in one clenched fist and shopping bags in the other. It’s a place which is, perhaps above all others, geared towards the mechanical extraction of profit from a cowed and servile humanity. It’s a place of Hate. It’s a place where bewildered tourists, abject wage slaves and parasites great and small go about their various business, where the message coming in from all sides is the same message we’re so used to these days that we barely notice anymore how hostile it is: SPEND YOUR MONEY AND THEN FUCK OFF. That’s what Topshop is saying to you, valued customer, with every atom of its being, every square foot of its architecture and every gorgeous airbrushed munchkin pouting down at you from its advertising hoardings.

But on March 26th 2011 for once it was Topshop that was afraid, and outside its gates, poetically flanked by Niketown and McDonalds, London’s heart of darkness for once beat with amity, camaraderie and a profound collective energy that served absolutely no commercial purpose whatsoever. People smiled and relaxed, they stopped, they shared. Strangers met and got to know one another, there was laughter, there was mirth, mischief and hijinx, jests and foolery. Nobody was trying to make money out of anybody. If business as usual on the high street amounts to a thinly veiled Hobbesian nightmare of fear and loathing then this was the polar opposite. This was Love, capital L, and for a few happy hours, before the forces off normality finally got their shit together and came down like a ton of baton wielding bricks, the rat-race was on hold. Traffic lights became spectator seats, shop windows became canvases, music played where music was never meant to be heard. This was refreshing, and also – for some people on the old end of the ‘young’ spectrum – eerily familiar. This was an atmosphere I hadn’t experienced since the tail end of the last century: this was a Rave.

I’m not trying to trivialise a political event by comparing March 26th to a rave. Although it doesn’t get talked about much these days the rave scene was political too. The sudden emergence of ecstasy, the love drug, along with an unprecedentedly inclusive subculture based on mutual joy, freedom and togetherness was deeply destabilising to the class ridden, prudish, parsimonious British establishment of the early 90s. Love proved to be an enemy of the State par excellence. Ravers were rebels, outlaws, and they were changing the world. Free parties are anathema to Capitalism: thousands of people, all of them enjoying themselves so much, and nobody paying? Nobody profiting? Boom! Capitalism’s head explodes. But of course Love got stomped on pretty fast back then, just like it is being now. A Tory government introduced a series of laws clamping down on unauthorised gatherings and the courts made examples of individuals by imposing harsh custodial sentences for petty, victimless offences. Deja-vu, anyone?

But while the bravest of the Oxford Circus lovers now languish at Her Majesty’s pleasure, much as the ringleaders of the rave scene did before them, what’s left to satiate our lonely hearts? People can’t live without love, and in what Baudrillard once called ‘the desert of social relations’, in an atomised society where competition rules and a brutal crypto-fascist ideology of winners and losers permeates all aspects of life, the powers that be know that at least some version of the collective bonhomie we felt that heady afternoon in March will be required to stop everyone from going completely mental.

The answer is state-sanctioned pseudo-love, the recourse of totalitarian regimes from times immemorial, a fake sense of belonging engendered through nonsense like love of the nation, love of the flag, love of the leader, love of abstracted symbols of power, the prowess of our athletes, the courage of our brave boys overseas. . . This is the sickly surrogate love we will be offered, as society is dismantled around us and we’re cast onto the rocks.

So in 2012, as they try to label you some kind of degenerate sociopathic killjoy for entertaining even the suspicion that the Olympics are for wankers and that people who go out waving flags for the Diamond Jubilee are fucking idiots, remember that you’re not alone. And remember that pseudo-love isn’t real love. It’s a synthetic love, built on a foundation of fear. It’s a love that numbs and blinds, that serves only as an attempt to occlude the horror that lies beneath it, the servile worship of power and craving to be dominated of those who are terrified of facing a reality they no longer have the strength to comprehend or control – the fawning love of slaves for their master.

Audio: Capitalism or Markets? Scott Lash & Bernard Stiegler

Full audio of  ‘Capitalism or Markets?: An Exchange – Bernard Stiegler and Scott Lash’ (9th January 2012 at Goldsmiths, University of London), organised by the Centre for Cultural Studies.

The talk addressed some of the following questions:

What is critical political economy today? Has neo-liberalism produced a system of domination in which capital has reduced labour not just to an object but to what Heidegger called a ‘standing reserve’,: that is a Marxist ‘reserve army of labour’ that no longer has a stake in the productive system resulting in conflagrations like Tottenham 2011? Or does a new industrialism driven by technological media open up a possible political space of ‘care’, enabling open relations of bonding between humans and among human and code-driven machines? How would such a political economy address the emerging powers in an age when Obama is destined to be the last president of what will have been the world’s most powerful nation? Is China (India) neo-liberal or is it possible to have the sociality of markets without capitalism? Is Foucault right to counterpose the positivity of a liberalism based in a classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo against the bio-political domination of a neo-liberalism and today’s neo-classical economics? Do we live in a post-industrial, knowledge society, or instead in the possibility of a new industrial order, in which industrial classes are pitted against the excesses of finance capital?

Scott Lash Questions Stiegler’s Notion of Belief

This is the second video excerpt from “Capitalism or Markets?: An Exchange – Bernard Stiegler and Scott Lash” (9th January 2012 at Goldsmiths University of London), in which Lash responds to Stiegler’s previous point on proletarianisation.

The full audio of the talk-exchange is now available to listen online or to download.

The talk addressed some of the following questions:

What is critical political economy today? Has neo-liberalism produced a system of domination in which capital has reduced labour not just to an object but to what Heidegger called a ‘standing reserve’,: that is a Marxist ‘reserve army of labour’ that no longer has a stake in the productive system resulting in conflagrations like Tottenham 2011? Or does a new industrialism driven by technological media open up a possible political space of ‘care’, enabling open relations of bonding between humans and among human and code-driven machines? How would such a political economy address the emerging powers in an age when Obama is destined to be the last president of what will have been the world’s most powerful nation? Is China (India) neo-liberal or is it possible to have the sociality of markets without capitalism? Is Foucault right to counterpose the positivity of a liberalism based in a classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo against the bio-political domination of a neo-liberalism and today’s neo-classical economics? Do we live in a post-industrial, knowledge society, or instead in the possibility of a new industrial order, in which industrial classes are pitted against the excesses of finance capital?

Live, Relax, Work (When Machines Go Silent), by Mark Rainey

edifyingdiscouse

Construction cranes once meant success. On a city skyline they were symbols of regeneration, redevelopment and investment. Then the recession hit. Many building projects went bust and some, like the Origin development on Whitworth Street in Manchester, not only lacked the finance to finish the project, but also lacked the money to remove the cranes from the building site. For three years the towering construction cranes stood silently in the sky. They were reminders that work had ceased. They became symbols of the recession.

While walking along Whitworth Street not too long ago, I noticed that the cranes had finally gone. However, the protective hoardings with their promotional advertising still remain. These advertisements have also become unintentional reminders of the recession. Under slogans such as ‘Efficient, Effortless & Individual’, ‘30-Something, Desirable & Knows it’, they depict the lifestyle hype of the pre-recession world. Now they act as stark reminders of lost aspiration. In his Society of Spectacle Guy Debord wrote that capitalism portrays itself as young, as youth characterises its dynamism. [1] The images of relationally and professionally aggressive young people on the hoardings along the abandoned development seem to act this out in the most obvious fashion. But there is a bitter irony here. This portrayal of youth is ‘by no means proper to people who are young’ [2] – the lost aspiration symbolized by this out-of-date advertising reflects the loss of opportunities available for young people. The slogan, ‘Live, Relax, Work’, on the hoardings takes on new and twisted meaning as unemployment reaches 2.68 million with young people hardest hit. [3] The cranes have gone, but the advertising remains. What once may have been fashionable, now seems embarrassingly out of place.

For more on the issue of work see Nyx issue 4

Notes:

(1) Guy Debord (1967) The Society of Spectacle, §62

(2) Ibid.

(3) ‘Unemployment Rises to 2.68 Million’, The Guardian, 18 January, 2012.

Bernard Stiegler on the Question of the Proletariat

This is the first excerpt from “Capitalism or Markets?: An Exchange – Bernard Stiegler and Scott Lash” (9th January 2012 at Goldsmiths University of London), in which Stiegler responds to a question on class struggle. The talk, which will be published in full ( so watch this space for more recordings in the forthcoming weeks) addressed some of the following questions:

What is critical political economy today? Has neo-liberalism produced a system of domination in which capital has reduced labour not just to an object but to what Heidegger called a ‘standing reserve’,: that is a Marxist ‘reserve army of labour’ that no longer has a stake in the productive system resulting in conflagrations like Tottenham 2011? Or does a new industrialism driven by technological media open up a possible political space of ‘care’, enabling open relations of bonding between humans and among human and code-driven machines? How would such a political economy address the emerging powers in an age when Obama is destined to be the last president of what will have been the world’s most powerful nation? Is China (India) neo-liberal or is it possible to have the sociality of markets without capitalism? Is Foucault right to counterpose the positivity of a liberalism based in a classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo against the bio-political domination of a neo-liberalism and today’s neo-classical economics? Do we live in a post-industrial, knowledge society, or instead in the possibility of a new industrial order, in which industrial classes are pitted against the excesses of finance capital?

Delilah_Miranda Latimer

New Year Revolutions: Feminism, by Charlotte Latimer

Image by Miranda Latimer

This year, resolutions should be revolutions. Let us start the year with hopeful predictions before we become any more jaded. As Nyx is not just night, she is also woman (the other, the unknown, but where things are unknown anything is possible) let us decide that this year Feminism will revolutionise itself and prove to the world how invigorating and dynamic it can be. Rather than getting caught up in simplistic or essentialist understandings of gender let’s use the plurality of feminist positions and perspectives as an opportunity and not a threat. ‘Feminism’ should not be viewed as knowledge to be captured and classified but a force for change and newness. Let’s use it to oppose capitalistic and neoliberal understandings of identity and the self and create new forms of resistance and liberation. It will be flexible and fluid; different problems need different solutions, there cannot be one universal-catch all feminist perspective (check out Mohanty’s Under Western Eyes (1984) if you want some post-colonial clarification). Let’s use it to fight against injustice and for equality.

The argument that women will be worse affected by the cuts has shone a light back onto feminism with people arguing for and against its value. Somehow it’s become difficult to talk about feminism without admitting that there are essential biological differences between men and women. Rather than making claims about a historical or universal ‘man’ or ‘woman’ we should be questioning the need for rigid categorisation. Instead we should be using the category as a performative tool to highlight that, for whatever reason you want to attribute it to, women have always been paid less than men and this has a lot to do with what kind of work and attitudes ‘society’ values. Women are not a separate category away from men and children, as Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) : the better things are for women the better things are for everyone. Feminist critiques aren’t just about helping women, they bleed into all kinds of other social, cultural and political issues. We need to fight not only against the cuts but beyond the cuts to the systemic problems that they are an accelerated extension of.

In 1981 Cynthia Cockburn asked “Will the intrinsic interdependency of keyboard and computer force a re-gendering of ‘typing’ so that it is no longer portrayed as female?”, and interestingly enough it has. How gender is configured has to be understood as relational and contextual and it must be acknowledged that those configurations are always producing new affects. Last year the Feminist Review published a special issue on communication and media and elsewhere feminist are critiquing our built environments (creativevents.com). Zoe Williams’ recent Feminism in the 21st Century (2011) cites Sylvia Walby’s work on how gender is produced today through neoliberalism. Regardless of gender, the neoliberal era is obsessed with body image; it’s a totally controlling and oppressive phenomenon where all our energies are driven into trying to produce our bodies in a certain way. The body is perhaps the only space of power most people have. (There are increasing quantities of literature being published on the politics of fat – a trend kick-started by Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist issue (1978)).

Feminism should push forward ideas and approaches that allow both men and women to feel out alternative ways of being and seeing. Williams’ article also suggested that female sexuality should play a role in female liberation. Prior to neoliberalism, Helene Cixous saw “imbecilic capitalist machinery” as a key factor in women’s oppression and argued that women should reclaim their bodies as their “libido will produce far more radical effects of political and social change than some might like to think.” Positioning sexuality as a force that shapes and affects the world opens up new theoretical challenges and possibilities. Thinking through the body and finding ways to articulate the things that we feel and can’t express is one of many steps towards a new kind of politics that smashes neoliberal capitalism and all its oppressions.

“And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” -Cixous

machines

Nyx 7: Machines- Call for Contributions

“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine”. . . and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man, but in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine.

-  E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops

We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath, a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

The Futurist Manifesto

Nyx, a noctournal calls for abstracts and new work for its forthcoming spring/summer 2012 issue on MACHINES. Critical theorists, writers, artists, photographers, revolutionaries and wage-slaves are asked to consider: what do contemporary relationships and uses of machines reveal about popular culture; political structures; shifts in social or economic systems? What possibilities or dangers do they present? Have machines liberated us, as the early 20thCentury Modernists and social reformists dreamed of, or have human beings become bound by machinery, tangled up in digitised information and intensive demands for productivity in the modern precarious workplace, made redundant by automation or reduced to passive cogs in a vast autopoietic network over which they no longer have any control?

Each era is defined by its usage and experience of machinery. Produced to wage war or save time, the machine is laden with exciting and horrific possibilities. What if the machines malfunction or revolt? Are machines a threat to the poor worker, as Marx feared, or is access to cheap electric goods a hallmark of the contemporary consumer social contract? What new sensations, perils and experiences of time have video games, smartphones, televisions, cars, gym equipment, e-books, the Internet and other machines brought? Is the organic obsolete, another health-food fad paid on credit card at a self-service checkout?

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari warn of “machinic enslavement”, but at the same time affirm that modernity “provides so many weapons for the becoming of everybody/everything, becoming-radio, becoming-electronic, becoming-molecular. . .” Heidegger feared that unfettered technology could sideline humanity into a diminished form of being. Futurists, Cyberneticians, Computer Hackers, Capitalists and Communists alike have all embraced the machines in their own ways; Luddites have smashed them. Science Fiction has sown machine fantasies of both utopia and terror, from Jules Verne to The Terminator; few subjects grip the imagination so well as the march of the machines and their impact on humanity.

Email artwork, images, abstracts or ideas of no more than 300 words with a short bio to noctournal@gmail.com by 1st February 2012. Please send as .doc or .jpg

bus stop_big

Loops, by J.D.Taylor

A cool winter morning in south London sees a young man muttering to himself at a bus stop. It’s some kind of rap-rant: snatches of social observation, jibes at the physical defects of passers-by, warnings to unknown rivals. It’s posturing and it’s pretty irritating, but increasingly common, a kind of birdcall asserting territory and status in an intimidating environment. His words loop in together rhythmically, often repeating key phrases as in a mantra.

Using language in a fairly vacuous way to posture isn’t just exclusive to young men at south London bus stops.  Take a moment to click a few times on the latest radical critical theory text generator, The Automatic Insurrection, an excellent spoof of how young Marx-quoting revolutionary theory can quickly stray into nonsense and egotistical masturbation. A basic computer programme generates this text:

“We must shatter all mobilization—absolutely. It is necessary to commence in secret; not to dream of new ways to be productive, but to make manifest the subterranean communes in the heart of each barricaded hallway”.

Were I to refresh the page, words would be arranged differently. It would be rude to name names but you know.… It’s both alarming and hilarious in equal measure, and it comes from a more simplistic version of the Postmodernism text generator, itself weaving together Sontag, Baudrillard, Debord, Oliver Stone or a load of unbelievably pretentious non-theory to generate in-a-click essays that could convincingly originate from the average visual arts theorist.

Both demonstrate how faddish and fashionable theory can read, and some of the excesses of casual theory imposed without a clear description of terms or ideas. Meaning has become redundant to the expression of language. The random text asserts not ideas, but the obscure pomp and posture of a rarefied style of writing about ideas and cultural events: spitting lyrics away at a bus-stop does occasionally assert curious social observations, but operates primarily to assert status and ego. The meaning of language falls apart whenever one no longer has anything important to say, but feels important enough to say something all the same.

There is a discernible melancholia of language visible in wider cases too. The sad demise of the Deterritorial Support Group is a significant case in point. The public announcement on the 21st December 2011 that this small group of radical thinkers and media saboteurs were parting company has come at a crossroads for left-wing organisations in the UK. Whilst DSG have publicly split and Nina Power’s Infinite Thought blog has also officially retired, other voices like Mark Fisher’s K-punk blog or the University for Strategic Optimism have markedly been absent. UK Uncut are still active, but their efficacy and novelty of their actions has plateaued. What’s happening?

In their recent public statement, DSG announced:

“We are tired of such institutions and of the ideology spread by them, intrinsic to this publishing form: that the working class are hardworking victims of capital, exploited by virtue of their own stupidity, desperate to give an honest days work and just wanting an honest days pay… No, the proletarian is a master of struggle; she is aspirational, she wants to evade wage-labour and regain the flesh of life. It is our class who produce and create and drive social change; it is our struggles that capital reacts to, it is our struggle that shapes society.”

DSG explicitly reject blogging, a reactive format that, for them, fails to truly disrupt neoliberalism. This notice comes ten days after Nina Power ‘retired’ her long-standing Infinite Thought blog with a similar disavowal:

“I’m feeling less and less interested in alienated, isolated forms of critique or anger or what have you, and more and more practically interested in the kinds of collective work I only really theorised about before.”

This rejection of blogging is a little exciting and bears traces of a rejection of merely intellectual activity, discernible throughout certain fertile periods of the Left. The danger of this kind of ‘Maoist’ move however is total inertia: intellectuals in professional positions or from middle-class backgrounds might identify with the ‘proletariat’ under a global ‘we’ heading, a term itself unrecognised by most angry workers and hence a little beside the point, but can workers identify with a theory that has no clear strategy? The key thing is that this is the beginning of something new, and out of the new encounters of disaffected radicals and young workers will stem new arrangements and ideas of 2012. It’ll be exciting to see if and how these develop. It is however warily reminiscent of the farewells and missionary movements of new left radicals from the late 1960s/early 1970s, who disappeared into ‘authentic’ social change as the left stagnated.  Faced with powerful opposition and an unclear sense of an alternative, the resistance to neoliberal capitalism becomes melancholic.

To avoid the looping mistakes of previous configurations of the Left, strategy focused on spectacular, media-grabbing events – alongside democratic, accessible and quick arguments – could feed the spreading of dissent as the harsh cold of the next few dark indebted years kicks in, described by Federico Campagna in more rarefied terms as the ‘Winter War’. His words are beguiling, dreamy and original, but as with DSG and Infinite Thought, the sense of anger or surety as to why each of us are here in the first place, and what each of us can do next, is missing. Bad things afoot, so what?

In times of pessimism, one forgets what made an idea or cause compelling to us in the first places. Books and ideas were rubber rings in times of confusion and crisis. It might seem solipsistic to celebrate critique, but its power is explaining social and economic relations as they are, and identifying how circumstances might be changed. Is critique at fault if this isn’t heeded, or if it ignores the brutal course of human history as it has actually developed? These concerns haunt the imagination of anybody committed to social transformation in a practical or idealistic capacity. The beginning of the new is marked by the passing of the old: new constellations and organisations of radicals may be forming; if so, strategies should be picked up and lessons learned from the decline of the old groupings in time for 2012.

Questions like: is peaceful Marxist activism the most effective way of organising political and social transformation? What would be the effects of the revolution activists desire, and are there other ways of agitating for these kinds of changes? What counts as ‘winning’?  Can winning even be counted? How can my political ideas benefit or be desirable to communities around me? Has law and legality focused or limited the efficacy of Left-wing struggles to date, compared to the spectacular disruption and passion of the riots, or of the best of the student protests? Is the task of socialism more profound if British voters can’t even be persuaded to opt for a slightly fairer voting system? Should I go home instead and eat ice cream and watch TV? Which time-consuming strategies don’t really work towards my ends, and which ‘might do’? More online articles? Bulking up marches? Commiserating with bad Guinness in overpriced pubs with the ‘comrades’? Cheeky, headline-grabbing stunts? What social and economic arrangements can work beyond or after neoliberal capitalism?

I seek answers that aren’t just theoretical gymnastics, to spur a discussion about strategy. Radicals already agree that neoliberal capitalism is dangerous and destructive, that some sort of socialism would be far more beneficial to the mass of humanity. Strategies are needed to undermine these forces that would truly render reactionary blogging obsolete. 2012 can confirm their efficacy. Primo Levi, reflecting on the history of rebellions in human history, best articulates the task of the strategic, open-minded and adventurous troublemaker:

“The image so often repeated in monuments of the slave who breaks his heavy chain is rhetorical; his chains are broken by comrades whose shackles are lighter and looser. … All revolutions, those which have changed the direction of world history and those minuscule ones which we are dealing with here, were led by persons who knew oppression well, but not on their own skin”. [Drowned and Saved, 1988, 130-131]

It’s not a complacent argument, and within the loops of the prisoner’s broken shackles are suggestions for further thought. The collapse of the public sector and frozen wages will accelerate the decline in living standards for the middle-classes too, whose revolt J.G. Ballard and Peter Wilby have forecast already. Violent enforcement of the law and the defence of austerity cuts will become even more ‘real’, that’s if unemployment, debt, rapid imprisonment, the prospect of rubber bullets and work anxiety didn’t feel quite real enough already. States will often up the stakes of contestation whenever they feel threatened: another lesson from previous struggles. Groupings fragment and form new constellations, leaving each of us confronting a void that meaningful language can quickly and easily fill, provided the safe retreats and communities of academic theory and posturing can be left behind. The time for compelling and focused political strategy is apparent, so who wants it?

J.D. Taylor is a writer from south London, whose forthcoming ‘Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era’ will be published by Zero Books in mid-2012.

Thoughts on Writing and Negation

image by ‘CeeDave’s’ Flickr page 

This post will step away from overt political critique and address itself to writing and expression as a means of reconceiving experience. It will belch with theoretical flatulence and at the same time pose its questions in the most tippy-toes, pastel-coloured tones. Reader beware.

Blanchot, writer of the nocturnal, of oblivion, of infinite waiting, could be seen as the exemplary mascot of Nyx’s project – to write on the other side of the page (to see what bleeds through?). Blanchot writes about writing, and anyone who has read Blanchot will know what a problematic proposition writing about writing can be. Writing about Blanchot’s writing is especially difficult because he has anticipated anything you might say if you treat his writing as having a message or content. And yet, as John Gregg says, “The more [Blanchot] writes about the neutral, ‘la pensee de l’impossible [the thought of the impossible]’…the more thinkable it becomes. The pensée that precedes all systems still lends itself to systematization, to partial degrees of it anyway” (Gregg, 1994:129). It is as if the will to abstraction, to make-readable, cannot be denied. Unthinkable things can’t be approached in thought – they either become domesticated or altered to fit thought’s shape.

If writing is the mode in which we submit experience to the domain of the conceptual and thus lose the specificity and singularity of what is, Blanchot’s project seems to be to undo the illusion writing submits us to, and in doing so, to make writing a tool by which one makes contact with a non-objectifiying oblivion that might get us closer to a kind of pure ‘experience’. At least, this feels like a natural reading of Blanchot, but I think it’s probably problematic insofar as it wanders into essentialist territory which is no-go land in post-structuralism.

Timothy Clarke talks about how language ‘shows’ or ‘gives to appear’ rather than ‘signifies’ in his book “Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot”. He explains what he means by this in a note: Although the example is simplifying, something of this ‘showing’ can be introduced in terms of the inability of some poetic language to deal with negatives. A brief’ bagatelle’ of Charles Tomlinson, ‘Event’ (1972), is an exploitation of this inability. From ‘Written on Water’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 38.

Nothing is happening

Nothing

A waterdrop

Soundlessly shatters

A gossamer gives

Against this unused space

A bird

Might thoughtlessly try its voice

But no bird does.

Yet the bird sings, even as ‘no bird does’. Something emerges in language unaffected by the positing of a ‘no’. A crude sketch of Heidegger’s complex notion of Dichtung begins to emerge here (p.196).

Clarke says that language is unable to ‘deal with negatives’. And I suppose this means that ‘nothing’ cannot be referred to. Referring to an absence is to make a presence of an absence. Or, maybe, absence can only be understood negatively as not-presence. But even then not-presence has become substantial. Does absence have positive properties? This question is posed as one of logic rather than one of phenomenology. And Heidegger was a phenomenologist. But can the negative be approached phenomenologically? Does Blanchot’s thinking about writing give us a way to do so?

On Re-imagining Education…

Last week at the crack of dawn, we assembled outside of Goldsmiths College in South London to warm up for the N30 march– announced as the biggest strike in a generation, gathering workers across the entire public sector who came out fighting for their pensions, against cuts – or just about any decision made by the government in the past year. Outside the University picket lines were formed to stop teachers and students from entering, and a lineup of speakers were setting the mood for the day, drawing the supportive honks of passing cars. Des Freedman (in the video below) talked about the prospects of universities becoming privatized and turned into profitable institutions. An important point raised, relating to what I would like to discuss here is the importance of open access to Universities; applauding Goldsmiths’ Centre for Culture Studies’ initiative this year of opening up their lectures to the community.

Des Freedman, Reader in Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College speaks prior to the N30 march

The future lies in open access and the sharing of information cost free. Both great inspirations and resourses are sites such as aaaaarg.org (where academic books can be downloaded in full) and lecturelist.org, listing free lectures and talks across the country, also searchable by subject and region. A central purpose of this blog – beyond working as an extension of Nyx magazine – is directly relating to this evolution – the idea of the sharing of sources of information and ideas. We hope that it will work as a network for students of the Arts and Humanities across the country; currently at University but also graduates or anyone who appreciates learning in this area. A kind of support system in the current chaos of cuts to fundamental building blocks of our society; Art and Education. One of the things you will find on the site is a regular posting of recorded lectures. Many Universities are already putting up podcasts to lectures and talks- but Nyx will work as a filter, assembling the best in one place. Further, the idea is to create a mix of not only public lectures, but lectures forming part of ongoing courses. Our first series, ‘Culture Studies and Capitalism’, led by Professor John Hutnyk at Goldsmiths will follow soon, so watch this space!

An article in the Observer a few months ago (‘Reality TV the only way to move up in this world’ by Carole Cadwalladr) talked about the “Indiana Joneses” of our time, rolling under the gate before it is slammed shut. This amusing but vital point captured a generation I feel very much part of. I competed my BA at the University of the Arts just before the first top up-fees were enforced a few years ago (from £1000 to £3000 per year) and have completed my Masters degree just as the government decided to treble tuition fees. Although the fight for our current educational models is important, how likely is it that our voices will be heard? Are we entering an era when our energy and time is better-spent re-imagining education?

There are already organizations that have begun this task. Never mind the ‘The Open University’ – it seems that it is amidst the many current Occupy movements where new and more radical education alternatives are growing. The ‘Free University’ had their first public meeting last week and will continue the discussion on the 15th of December at the Bank of Ideas at the occupied building on Sun Street in the City of London. They intend to start free courses led by lecturers from leading Universities, including Goldsmith’s College – an idea that feels new and important, because the involvement of lecturers will not only bring the important element of taught learning (rather than online learning) as pointed out in the video above, but will also bring authority to the project. More things are happening- The Bank of Ideas is starting a Capital reading group for non-students with the help of David Harvey via podcasts. The reading group will begin on the 20th December, running every Tuesday for the next 6 months.

Please share your own recordings by emailing them to us nyxnoctounal@gmail.com, stating date, title of lecture/ seminar and name of lecturer and we will publish them on the blog. In order to avoid causing any unnecessary trouble, the Nyx team also kindly requests that you to ask the lecturer for permission to do this.

Ideas, ongoing/ upcoming reading groups, news or what you would like to see in Nyx welcome too.

Who is responsible for the mysterious posters?

‘Educational Decree no 28 by the ‘Minister of Magic’

The big gathering in Lincolns Inn Fields in central London before the march

Nyx issue 6 is Out Now

The sixth edition of Nyx, a Noctournal is out now.

Concerning THE MONSTROUS, this issue brings together artists, visionaries, rogue philosophers and hip photographers, poets, ravers and dreamers to describe the darkest of fantasies and phantasms.

The issue features exclusive interviews with street-artist Stik, K-punk theorist Mark Fisher, alongside theories of the weird by Eugene Thacker at the New School and a theoretical defence of genocide by Nick Land, now based in Shanghai. Sofia Himmelblau, firebrand of the University for Strategic Optimism, revisits race and class in the 2011 riots clean-up alongside artwork by Laura Oldfield Ford. Amedeo Policante finds in today’s black bloc a spectral echo of Franciscan profanators, whilst Yari Lanci tears through Amy Winehouse, Andre Breivik and the superheroes of contemporary comic-books what it means to be a vigilante.

Side-stepping theory, Lara Choksey offers a new story on the deathliness of old family bedrooms, and Dan Taylor documents a case of Cordyceps contamination amongst a limited human population. Phil Sawdon pieces together the correspondence of demonologists, madmen and creatures even more unnameable in a Monstrum Impuissant, Marcin Kolodziejczyk goes on a cheeseburger zombie safari whilst Becky Ayre discovers a new alphabet amongst genetic oddities. izabela Lyra begins a sequence of new stories about Jade, sick with gems, containing all the contradictions of the modern world.

This monster finally contains numerous pieces of work by up-and-coming artists like Abigail Jones’ ‘A Taste of Perfection’ series, a freakish desecration of Lady Gaga and others by Nuala C. Murphy, a criminal badge of honour by Peter Willis, the beasts and ice cream inside the mind of Christy Taylor, disquieting new sketches of the female forms by Julia Scheele, and a cosmophilosophical comic-strip by Emix Regulus. Lucy Pepper shares with Nyx her reflections on the viciously observant Trolls catalogue, whilst we leave with an apocalyptic photo-essay on strung-out ravers by the anthropological eyes of Sinikka Heden and Nicholas Gledhill.

The sixth edition costs £8 (inc. postage) from the Nyx website, including a pdf copy. Alternatively a pdf only version can be bought right now from our site for £4, featuring two bonus pdf only articles – “Bread, Circus and Botox” by Mila Volpe, and a journey into the disenchanted language and meaninglessness of Royal Mail correspondence by Adam Hutchings, with illustrations by Chris Sav.To order, go to http://www.nyxnoctournal.com and follow the Paypal links on the homepage.

The magazine can also be purchased directly from the Goldsmiths shop, with further stockists to be announced imminently.