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Monday
Feb182019

The Left Can't Meme?

‘The Left Can’t Meme?’ is an extended version of the presentation I gave at the Transmediale Festival in Berlin on February 1, 2019. I was speaking on the Creating Commons: Affects, Collectives, Aesthetics panel hosted and organised by Cornelia Sollfrank and Felix Stalder on behalf of the Creating Commons @Zurick ZHdK research project. The other panelists were Laurence Rassel and Jeremy Gilbert. (An audio recording of the entire panel discussion is available here.) The specific question Cornelia and Felix asked me to address in my 10 minute presentation was: How can spaces within existing institutions allow for affective dimensions to be articulated?

 

It’s going to look like what I’m talking about today is publishing. But if we’re interested in creating commons, then we need act and think and work differently to the way in which most of us do at the moment. This is what I’m really going to be talking about: different ways of being and doing. As a media theorist, I want to reinvent theory by breaking with a lot of the categories and frameworks of what it’s currently considered to be. Specifically, I want to change it from the bourgeois, liberal humanist model that’s enacted by most theorists today, regardless of whether they’re Marxists, feminists, new materialists, Deleuzians ... Paying attention to how we create, publish and disseminate knowledge is just one means of doing so.

On this panel we’re concerned with the affective forces - those drives, desires, fantasies and resentments - that motivate people to become part of a group, and form the basis of collective forms of identification. And as we know, the right have succeeded in using affect as a mobilizing populist political force. They’ve used the repetition of slogans – Brexit’s ‘Take back control’, Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ - to create chains of equivalence across disaffected groups of people and to mainstream their ideas, transforming the political landscape in the process. The left has it’s own affective-emotional themes. When it comes to theory, you just have to say words like ‘commons’, ‘collective’, ‘cooperative’, ‘Anthropocene’, even ‘affect’ itself, to realise this. But the left have been conspicuously bad at turning their representations into actions that make different people, in the mainstream of society especially, want to constitute themselves as a group around issues such as the commons. (Even taking #MeToo and BlackLivesMatter into account, there’s been no real progressive equivalent of the kind of forceful play epitomised by the Pepe the Frog meme.)

Mobilizing some of these left affective drives in order to create institutional projects as a political force is what myself and my colleagues have been working on for some time. We've been doing so via a number of projects for the production of free resources and the commons of the kind Cornelia and Felix understand as ‘aesthetic practices’. 

(We’ve been asked to focus on concrete practices on this panel; however, I have to say, it’s often forgotten that the practices that produce theory are very concrete, while the theory behind ideas of the material and the ‘concrete’ is often very weak. When they invited me I think Cornelia and Felix also thought my talk would shift the panel’s focus somewhat, from Laurence’s emphasis on community, to a concern with resources on my part. But I’m not sure that’s right, as the resources I’m referring to are produced by communities working collectively. In fact I’d argue that perhaps the most important resources we produce are these communities.)


In 1999 we launched the 
Culture Machine journal of critical and cultural theory – which is just about to relaunch out of Mexico.

In 2008 Culture Machine became a founder-member of Open Humanities Press, which involves multiple semi-autonomous, self-organising groups, all operating in non-rivalrous fashion to make works of contemporary theory available on a non-profit, free/gratis, open access basis. OHP currently has 21 journals, 40 plus books distributed across 8 book series, as well as experimental, libre, texts such as those in our Liquid Books and Living Books About Life series.

OHP was in turn a founder member of the Radical Open Access Collective, a community of non-profit presses, journals and other projects, formed in 2015. Now consisting of over 50 members, this collective seeks to build a progressive alternative ecosystem for creating and publishing research in the humanities and social sciences, based on experimenting with a diversity of non-profit, independent and scholar-led approaches.

Meanwhile, in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, and it’s Post Office research studio, we’re interested in reinventing hardware, software and network infastructures – especially those involved in the production and dissemination of theory: the book, journal, seminar series. But also infrastructure that operates at a larger scale: institutions such as the archive, museum, library and so on. And we’ve brought together people involved in a number of such ‘aesthetic practices’. There’s myself from OHP, Janneke Adema from the Radical Open Access Collective, Jacqueline Cawston from the Mandela 27 pop-up, Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak from the Memory of the World shadow library…

Hopefully you’re already getting a sense of how we’re working a little differently to the individualistic, bourgeois, liberal humanist model of authorship adopted by most theorists. We don’t always act as virtuoso authors - we often operate in terms of communities and collectives. Indeed, our theory doesn’t always involve authoring at all. Along with such affective labour as supporting, encouraging and inspiring, it can involve building, developing and maintaining far more than authoring - as with Marcell Mars’s work with UbuWeb. This is because, for us, theory isn’t just a means of imagining our ways of being in the world differently; it’s a means of enacting them differently too. So our projects are performative or pre-figurative, in the sense they’re concerned not just with representing the world but also with intra-acting with it in order to make things happen. They’re ‘being the change we want to see’.1 

Now it might appear the trajectory we’ve been on for the last 20 years has been about becoming a mobilizing political force by scaling our work on creating common resources: from the single journal Culture Machine, to the 21 journals of Open Humanities Press, through the 50 plus members of the Radical OA Collective, to The Post Office’s collective presence of all these projects as part of an existing formal institution. However, actually, we don’t want to grow any of these aesthetic infrastructural and institutional projects at all. We prefer to non-scale them, as some of my colleagues have recently taken to calling it, following Anna Tsing (although, as I say, we’ve been working like this for 20 years now): by developing relationships with a diversity of others in different parts of the world through collaboration; and by allowing our content and infrastructure to be openly copied, shared and reiterated, free of charge.

Non-scaling like this is important to us because (as I’ve argued elsewhere), it helps avoid repeating the centre/periphery model of the geopolitics of knowledge, whereby ‘there are just a few nations at the centre of the global information networks’ such as the UK, US, France and Italy, ‘who are exporting, and in effect “universalizing”, their knowledge. … and a whole host of other nations outside of the centre who … don’t have opportunities to publish, export, or even develop their own “universal” knowledge’. At most, scholars on the so-called periphery ‘get to “export empirical data” that provides local detail that can be used to flesh out the “universal” knowledge of those closer to the centre.

Developing in terms of collaboration and reiteration - rather than growth and expansion - can help prevent the reproduction of this state of affairs: not simply by enabling us to place more emphasis on privileging non-standard contributions from others, understood geographically (i.e. in terms of the global South and East), but also in terms of BAME, LGBTQIPA, working class and other nonconforming identities. Although the decolonizing agenda is important to us, for example, such an approach risks repeating and maintaining the kind of centre/periphery relationality of power we want to challenge. We see non-scaling as enabling us to produce a pluralistic and multi-polar network, one with a far more complex, antagonistic and decentred structure.

The emphasis we’re placing on multi-polarity and antagonism is important, as it ensures no single aesthetic project, collective or commons becomes the one to rule them all. Contrary to the impression sometimes given, creating unity, harmony and ‘oneness’  - a Kantian perpetual peace, as it were - is not what the becoming of the common and community is about. In fact, there’s no common understanding of the commons. Creative Commons, free software, open source, copyfarleft: all have different and conflicting concepts of the commons.

That said, the making of a decision in such an undecidable terrain – the refusal to decide what the commons is in advance, in our case - is just what politics is, as we know from Chantal Mouffe. So keeping the question of the common open like this enables us to be political in a way many versions of the commons are not. For just as Facebook has data points, so the Left has data or datum points of its own; and often these take the shape of those very affective drives, desires and fantasies that constitute the basis of collective forms of left identification. Does saying the kind of words that underpin most accounts of creating commons - democracy, solidarity, respect, human, freedom, cooperative, community, collective - not produce something of a dopamine rush in us?

At the same time we’re aware doing this kind of rigorous political work around concepts of democracy, freedom, the commons and so on is hard – and even more so in improvised sessions like this.2 The tendency is to lapse back into what seems self-evident, taken-for-granted, common sense, even though we know doing so maintains the bourgeois, liberal humanist status quo. 

 

Endnotes

1. For one political account of prefigurative practices, and how they can intervene and modify relations of power within existing institutional arrangements, see Valeria Graziano, ‘Prefigurative Practices: Raw Materials for a Political Positioning of Art, Leaving the Avant-garde’, in Lilia Mestre and Elke Van Campenhout eds, Turn, Turtle! Reenacting The Institute (Berlin: Live Art Development Agency & Alexander Verlag, 2016).

2. In Rogues, for example, Jacques Derrida refers to ‘the great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps all of democracy’: can ‘the alternative to democracy always be represented as a democratic alternation’, in which one democratic party elected by the people is replaced by another democratic party elected by the people? (Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays On Reason (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005) 30). In this question Derrida identifies a democratic paradox of his own. For him, democracy ‘itself, in its univocal and proper meaning’, can never be fully realized (34). Democracy is no more self-identical than are Europe and the West. It is rather defined by the ‘lack of the proper and the selfsame’, as indeed is the ‘very ideal of democracy’ (37). An authentic democracy is thus always to-come. Yet even if democracy could be fully realized, there is always the possibility that the people may decide to suspend it by legitimately voting into government a nondemocratic party that has the intention of changing the constitution and abolishing the ‘normal functioning of democracy’ (31). In short, democracy could ‘lead democratically to the end of democracy’ (33). Nor do the potentially paralyzing ambiguities of this paradoxical situation end there. Fearing such an outcome, the state and a large proportion of the people could decide to take power and act in a sovereign fashion to end democracy themselves, as in fact happened in postcolonial Algeria in 1992. This new power could interrupt the democratic electoral process ‘to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good’, in order to protect it from a much worse fate at the hands of the enemies of democracy (33). In both scenarios there would be a certain autoimmune suicide of democracy. All of which calls for the ‘event of the interruptive decision’, according to Derrida (35).


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