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Children of the Grave vs Moloch

December 20, 2011 - 1:59pm
By Cameron Bain

The exhibition, Home of Metal, celebrates forty years of heavy metal music while foregrounding Birmingham’s industrial past. In an act of ‘dedicated mining’, Cameron Bain follows metal from its birthplace in heavy production to sonic home for vital antagonisms


Birmingham’s claim to be the ‘Home of Metal’ hinges primarily on the generally accepted notion that Black Sabbath, from Aston, were the founders of the genre. Certainly within metal circles this is standard lore. (Also hailing from Birmingham and its environs, Judas Priest and Napalm Death, too, play prominent roles in the evolution of metal and thus in the exhibition, but more on them later.) Plausible cases can be made for earlier manifestations of the metallic form, say, Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ (1958), with its epochal, soundbreaking (sorry) deployment of the power chord, or the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964), with its foregrounding of two features that would become key sonic components of metal, namely: DISTORTION and the bludgeoning, repetitive primacy of the RIFF.


Image: Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath album cover, 1970


It was with Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album, though, (released February 1970), that many of the elements that would become enduring metal tropes, even signifiers of the genre, were distilled into an uncanny, potent brew for the first time: the creepy tritone intro riff (the Devil’s interval) of the opening track 'Black Sabbath'; spooky rain sounds and tolling bells; lyrical themes dealing with being hounded or seduced to damnation by satanic forces (‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘N.I.B’ respectively); Lovecraft-referencing/paraphrasing song titles (‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’); a desolate acoustic interlude sounding more menacing than pastoral (‘Sleeping Village’); and cover art redolent of a Hammer Horror, complete with morbid symbolist poetry framed by an inverted crucifix in the gatefold. Interestingly, the band had no involvement in the sleeve design; the designers presumably latched onto the same commercial impulse as the band itself when they appropriated the name Black Sabbath from Mario Bava’s 1963 horror (the original Italian title was I Tre volti della paura – The Three Faces of Fear), having speculated that if people were prepared to pay money to be scared in the cinema, perhaps they would also pay to listen to ‘scary music’; metal bands, for all that they may relish their underground, outsider cachet, have, in the main, always wanted to actually sell records.


Image: Godflesh, Streetcleaner album cover, 1989


The story as told by the exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, however, begins with the city itself and the influence of its sonic and material environment on the nascent musical form. A pair of wall quotes introducing the exhibition paint a picture of the city as heroically doomed to labour, a hellish crucible of raw, elemental heavy production:


Birmingham began with the production of the anvil and probably will end with them. The sons of the hammer were once her chief inhabitants.

– William Hutton, First Historian of Birmingham, b.1723


Black by day, red by night…

– Elihu Burritt, American consul, 1862


Part of the formative myth of metal is that the insistent pounding of Birmingham’s foundries had a direct influence on the unrelenting martial rhythms of the music, as well as informing a bleak, pessimistic outlook born of reflection upon the fate of those consigned to live out their lives amidst the remorseless grind of the urban industrial environment. It’s a thread that runs through the reminiscences of many musicians in the Birmingham lineage, from the video interviews with the members of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest included in the exhibition to a recent interview given by Justin Broadrick to Terrorizer magazine, recalling the psychic ambience surrounding the making of Godflesh’s 1989 album, Streetcleaner:


At night, in the summer with your windows open in the flat that I lived in, you could hear deliveries to these shops, and in the background were these factories. The smell in the air was industry and the sound was literally of grinding machines all night – it was like living in Eraserhead! I obviously felt at odds with that urban hell and Streetcleaner was definitely me trying to articulate what I had been through and harbouring that sort of hate and negativity.


The first room of the exhibition includes a display of some of the machine tools responsible for generating the city’s unholy permanoise, as well as interview recordings with the men who used to operate them – (I liked that this crucial industrial background to the emergence of the music was treated more than just tokenistically, that some effort was made to communicate the grain and grit of what it was like to actually labour in one of these factories in this place and at that time). This display, complete with time clock, could also perhaps be seen as a stark summation of working class youth’s horizon of expectation: manufacturing machine as implacable destiny and memento mori. In addition it serves as an oblique allusion to another element in Sabbath’s (and thus metal’s) sonic template: it was a similar kind of machine that removed the tips of two of Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s fretting fingers; the result being that, having ingeniously fashioned a pair of prosthetic fingertips out of washing-up bottle tops and scraps of leather, he ended up downtuning his guitar, finding the slacker strings easier to negotiate with his artificial fingertips. With the downtuning Sabbath acquired their signature ‘doomy’ sound. An interesting lecture that I attended as part of the exhibition touched on the importance of local amplification technology (Laney amps) in the formation of this sound also, but I will pass over that, uncertain as I am of the casual reader’s interest in such guitar geek tech specs.

The next room in the exhibition is a mock-up of a ’60s sitting room, featuring such retro curios as period television set and cigarettes. The room, besides offering somewhere cosy to screen the video interviews mentioned above, functions as one pole in a juxtaposition between the low-key, domestic escapism of lounge and TV on the one hand and the flamboyant, grandiose escapism represented later in the exhibition by displays of Judas Priest’s guitars and stage outfits and extravagant stage props, like the giant cross from Sabbath’s 1981 ‘Mob Rules’ tour. Metal is often derided for this grandiose escapism, ridiculed for its rich proliferation and dedicated mining of ‘ludicrous’ Tolkienesque/Lovecraftian/medieval/Viking/horror/sci-fi themes, but to denigrate metal’s presentation and thematic material as mere escapism is to miss a couple of important points. Firstly, for the working class youth (as was) comprising the membership of bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, metal’s ‘escapism’ represented a literal escape from what appeared to be an ineluctable, stultifying factory fate. As the members of Judas Priest tell it in one of the interviews, regardless of any academic promise you might have shown in school, the question was not ‘what do you want to do?’, but ‘which foundry do you want to work in?’ (Incidentally, there is a refreshing lack of tedious pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps cant in their musings on where they find themselves now as compared to where they could have been – the connection to the ‘real’ life of the community and its history still seems very strong, another justification for the inclusion of the humble sitting room, I think.) In fact, one of metal’s tacit, more laudable themes might be ‘Escape more! Escape better!’


Image: Judas Priest, Sad Wings of Destiny album cover, 1976


The second point I would make with respect to the accusation of mere escapism, is that for all that metal certainly does rely heavily on the exploitation of fantastic themes, it has always (or at least since Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid) also explicitly tackled political themes, often vividly and insightfully. War, the threat of nuclear annihilation (admittedly more in currency during the Cold War), the destruction of the environment, genocide, existential despair rooted in grotesque social inequalities, the creeping pathologisation of ‘awkward’ ‘personalities’ (for want of a far better term) and drug (ab)use are all amongst the ‘issues’ that have become perennially ingrained in metal’s lyrical DNA.1 One of my favourite metal diatribes against the iniquities and anxiety that seem to characterise ‘modern life’ is Sabbath’s ‘Hole in the Sky’ (echoes of depictions of the medieval ‘abominable fancy’?), from their 1980 album Sabotage, wherein we find a pithy analysis of the band’s own compromised role in the industrial production of art: ‘the food of love became the greed of our time / and now we’re living on the profits of crime’, giving the lie to the popular myth that, because metal bands seem to exist on a plane of ludicrous, ‘escapist’ excess, they are somehow bereft of any sense of self-awareness.


Image: Napalm Death, 'Scum' album cover, 1987


Metal’s most explicit and ferocious exercise in political engagement and critique arguably reaches its apogee with Napalm Death, the third major band forming the backbone of the exhibition. Napalm Death’s metal influences (Celtic Frost, Possessed) combined with more political hardcore punk (Discharge, Siege) and post/crust punk (Killing Joke, Crass, Amebix) to essentially form a new genre: grindcore (the name being coined by Napalm Death’s insanely fast drummer, Mick Harris). The resulting music is truly avant-garde in its condensation of speed, volume, concision and fury. ‘You Suffer’ (the shortest song ever recorded (1.316 seconds long), according to that magnificent compendium of spell-bindingly useful information, The Guinness Book of Records), from the debut album Scum is a detonation, a one-off sock in the gut that manages to both pose a question still painfully relevant and to be an exhortation to liberatory analysis: ‘you suffer / but why?’

The section of the exhibition illustrating the (ongoing) Napalm Death episode in Birmingham’s metal story contained what was probably my single favourite display, a huge collection of memorabilia from the milieu from which they emerged, loaned from the personal archives of members of the band(s): handwritten Napalm Death setlists (’83-’86) and lyrics; handmade gig flyers and posters for multi-band bills (the band names highlighting just how remarkably connected nationally and internationally the obscure local scene was); myriad anarcho-punk zines; and demo tapes and mixtapes with song titles in faded biro. Everything in fact, that constituted the distinctive verbal, visual and audio aesthetic fabric of the time, a microhistory of mass communication of an underground movement in the pre-internet age. The fact that such a wonderful proliferation of lovingly preserved self-documentation exists speaks volumes, I think, for the conviction and sheer enthusiasm of those involved, an eloquent and enduring testimony to youth’s dedication to being righteously (and rightfully!) pissed off. How you have fun (how you ‘escape’) counts and, given the state of things, the attitude celebrated here seems more vital and necessary than ever. Nostalgia doesn’t come into it.

Cameron Bain <cameronbain AT> works in the library for the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, writes sometimes and sometimes plays music in the bands Vukojebina and the Hung Jury




The Home of Metal Exhibition was held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 18 June to 25 September 2011



Further Reading

Ian Christe, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal,  London: Harper Collins, 2004.

Ozzy Osbourne, I am Ozzy, London: Sphere, 2009.

Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, Washington: Feral House, 2004.

Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998 (NB. Eddy’s definition of what constitutes heavy metal is tendentious and notoriously catholic – basically it’s anything with loud guitars – but the book’s full of sharp, funny writing about loads of good music, metal or not). 



1 Black Sabbath performing ‘Hand of Doom’, live in Paris, 1970. Despite (or because of) the band’s own proclivities at the time, they manage to come across not as hypocrites, but as sincerely furious and compassionate.

La Jetée’s Spiral

December 20, 2011 - 1:49pm
By Benedict Seymour

The image's mediation of the past is far from nostalgically comforting, writes Benedict Seymour in his review of Les Marques Aveugles at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva. If the visual returns of the show prove that modernist film tropes still have life in them, they nevertheless also evoke the painful loops of post-Fordist restructuring and its futureless futures


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.

- Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History'


 In a week in which the speed of light was wobbling and the Euro along with it, I visited a show in Geneva - capital of banks, clocks, and nuclear physics. Les Marques Aveugle at the Centre d'Art Contemporain pivoted on forms of what Freud called ‘Nachträglichkeit' (deferred or retroactive action), and explored the temporality of traumatism as played out in images conceived as ‘marks' and traces. Many of the 17, mostly contemporary, works in the show featured narratives in which cause and effect are reversed, image and sound diverge, run out of sequence or are superimposed. In Les Marques Aveugles (Blind Marks) - as in the now notorious neutrino jokes virally replicating across the internet (‘Who's there?' ‘Neutrino'. ‘Knock knock.') - the premise and the punchline often change places, and time is tied in more or less elegant, but generally thought provoking, knots.



Image: Still from Rosa Barba's A Private Tableaux, 2010


Around the potentially over-familiar lodestars of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962) and Hollis Frampton's wonderful Nostalgia (1971), several contemporary works of interest were constellated. The curators, Katya García-Antón and Emilie Bujès', conception of the image as a ‘blind mark' derives directly from the premise of Marker's film:


‘La Jetée' (‘The Jetty', 1962) opens with a still image of Orly airport, followed by this sentence, almost as seminal as Chris Marker's film itself: ‘This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood'.


Here it is the hold the image has over the protagonist that makes his time-travel possible, the condition both of his love, and his doom. This narrative device enables a refunctioning of the image archive inherited from the trauma of World War II and, in the process, sees the invention of what will become the most exciting sci-fi film tropes of neoliberal cinema. Frampton's film represents its own kind of reworking of the (personal) archive, with its own pattern of superimposition and retroactive action.


Marker and Frampton's films were not necessarily direct influences on the more recent film works in the show, but as the curator's statement makes clear, they did provide ‘a point of departure' for the show's research into the image as ‘mark' or, indeed, marker. The idea that historical events are the Real of artistic production (and reproduction) was very present, even as most of the works simultaneously emphasised their fictive or ‘performative' aspects. This was not a merely formal or psychological engagement with the image as a mark that marks those who mark it. The social, political and economic stakes of the image market - of the circulation of images - were at issue, too.


Particularly interesting in this light was Wendelien van Oldenborgh's slideshow/sound piece Après la reprise, la prise (2009). The artist arranged for two women, ex-workers and strikers at a Belgian jeans factory now working as actresses, to visit a class of secondary school pupils. This 15-minute work was assembled from the artist's documentation of the encounter. Sharing their experiences of Fordist and post-Fordist work and struggle with the younger generation, the piece reminded me of Paolo Virno's notion of virtuosic labour and ‘communicative capitalism': the women workers whose words and images constitute much of the artwork literally went from silent stitchers in the jeans factory to vocal (if intermittent) actors on the stage via the medium of the strike and its very articulate political speech/action. From secure muteness to a life of precarious volubility, their trajectory could be read as exemplifying a wider social movement or restructuring. The form of the artwork emphasised this thesis, presenting a contrast of overlapping and articulate voices, luminous and sometimes layered images. During the course of the slideshow, we discover that the recently closed down sewing area of the school in which this inter-generational exchange took place had exactly the same model of sewing machine the women used to use in the now closed down Levi's factory. One emptied workshop stood in for another, a kind of accidental reconstruction of the space in which the women went from workers to strikers to actors of a different kind. Here trauma was present as that which returns, not to mention as the ongoing shock of closures and foreclosures.


The image both testified to this and, through the disjunct relation to the soundtrack, posed the question of articulation in its own form. The combination of discrete and flowing slide images projected on the wall - La Jetée style fragments from an absent continuum - and a sound track woven of voices, combined different styles of articulacy from the two generations of post-workers. The ex-strikers' were distinct and clear, the teenagers an ebullient babble itself framed by one of the two actresses' injunction, ‘you have to articulate.' The viewer/listener was invited to do the same, to reconcile the images with the soundtrack's flow of words as parallel but distinct sequences of doubling and mirroring which ran through from singing off-screen at the beginning to comments on the actresses' current condition as 'intermittents du spectacles' performing precarious labour at the end: ‘We're not Sophie Marceau.' ‘Then again she hasn't done much lately.' 'She's wealthy enough she doesn't have to'. The loop structure of the work was more than a mere convenience here, implying both the persistence of alienation in work, old and new, and possibilities of inter-generational solidarity for les enfants de Levi's et Michael Jackson.



Image: Still from Chris Marker's, La Jetée, 1962

The title of the piece - Après la reprise, la prise - alludes to Jacques Willemont's famous document of 1968 ‘La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder' (‘The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory'). 'Reprise' means both 'return to work' and 'retake' as in the cinematic take, so one might translate the title as ‘After the retake, the take'. Among other things this refers to the history of artists taking up the Willemont film again (Reprise by Hervé le Roux, 1995), but also obviously the sense in which work becomes a kind of re-make of work. Further the title intimates a reversal of temporal sequence that resonates with others in the exhibition. As the artist explained in an email: ‘My take was to do something which is a "take" again, something in the present, referring to the present... but it comes after the retake.' As a work on work it presented its disjunctions intact for the viewer to work through (Nachträglichkeit as dreamwork, the delayed processing of events?) rather than as a spectacle of far-off activity. As such it spoke to our present conjuncture and invited reflection on the necessity (and forms) of communication between generations, and between workers and non-workers, in the present. If an increasing number of us are now beyond the return to work and indeed work itself, what new forms of speech and action are necessary (and not just for survival)? As one of the women (ex-)workers says, ‘I gave my presentation and they understood', but clearly her mode of address, as actress and striker, was quite different from the everyone-speaking-at-once of the youth. What dialectical or disjunctive synthesis is possible in this meeting of voices and images?


The pensions strike in the UK last November raised similar questions of articulation and resistance, precipitating both solidarities and tensions between generations. Questions of striking, marking and indeed trauma, are not going away in the current showdown between capital and post/workers. Is a one-day strike any more than a striking image? Is a purely symbolic strike effective? Will something ‘real' build out of such gestures? And what effect would an escalation from symbolic action into real shows of force have on proletarians who do not conceive themselves as workers? Here again the striking image, the clear alignment of voice and action or us against them was complicated, requiring further work (within, against, or without, work).


Advancing the curator's research into images as marks without losing its own distinctive voice was Rosa Barba's film A Private Tableaux (2010). It treats the hermetic and hieratic marks left by road engineers on the ceiling of subterranean service tunnels as traces of a vanished civilisation, a Lascaux cave of the modern era. Poetically precise and economical in 'reading' the signs by means of textual inter-titles, functional marks are revealed by torch-light to a shaky handheld camera and reinscribed: the dreaming of a lost civilisation, a diagram of an alien cosmology. Barba manages to avoid whimsy, instead suggesting the mythical qualities of scientific knowledge itself. Like La Jetée, this is a trip into our own antiquity, an archaeology of the present. As such it was a useful corrective to the visitor centre at the nearby CERN institute of nuclear physics which I visited during my time in Geneva. Such absence of poetry at the epicentre of global research into the neutrino was striking in another way. While engaged in undermining the fundamentals of modern science, CERN shrouds itself in an aesthetic straight out of the '80s ‘Innovations' catalogue, with a dash of ‘Terminator 2' for the entrance foyer. Perhaps Barba's film is the last (displaced) redoubt of ‘the wonders of micro-physics' such outreach projects strain but fail to convey. A Private Tableaux recognisably follows in Marker's footsteps, forced to leave the high road of advanced science to find more suggestive material in the unconscious of the engineers' mundane underworlds. No neutrino will be shot through these service corridors to outrace light in pitch darkness, but they have the feeling of Egyptian tombs, of codes and secrets to be deciphered. Barba's camera catches the auratic afterglow of a purely practical activity, the antithesis of Herzog's recent 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams which made the sublime ridiculous with sonic and visual supplements, selling its ancient sources short. As opposed to stereo-optic enhancement and deflation of the ancient marks, a spiral of specular bubble and bust, here the flatness of the sign opened up a (semantically and acoustically) resonant space of much greater depth and suggestiveness.


This trip into the underworld was also a journey across time. Watching it returned me to Marker's piece with fresh eyes. La Jetée, video projected from 35mm but itself originally a 16mm production, seemed an even more deft and beautiful reframing of the traumatic past. Here it is World War II that provides much of the visual material for projection of a post-apocalyptic future, though it is clearly also mediating the Cold War moment in which it was made. The story's central convolution involves scientists sending the captive protagonist back to a period before the World War and then forward into a technologised future (‘Paris reconstructed. 2,000 incomprehensible streets') in an attempt to save humanity - or at least ‘human industry'. Famously it is because the hero remains obsessed by ‘an image from his childhood' that his captors are able to target him at a particular moment in his life with the precision of nuclear physicists aiming a neutrino. In the process however they unleash a destiny at once anticipated and obscured by its own image. The protagonist meets and falls in love with the woman of his childhood memory, an ante-bellum idyll, but then is parted from her as the scientists send him into the far future to bring back the energy packs needed to regenerate society. On return to the present, attempting to escape execution by his captors, he asks the people of the future to send him back into the past so he can rejoin the woman he loves. He finds her but is followed and killed by one of the captors, realising at the last moment that he has become the object of his own childhood gaze. The image which ‘marked' him for life will have been that of his own death. The protagonist follows his fixation on an image to the point of incarnation, fulfilling it as a destiny by entering it, becoming simultaneously subject and object at the point of annihilation. The image here is not merely representational or descriptive but performative, it casts a spell, and unravels into love story and death sentence. La Jetée is a (modern) tragedy, in which narrative is predestination, action self-erasure, and the choice of humanity and love over ‘social regeneration' is paid for with death; the project of happiness ends with an execution. The film's implications are endless, contradictory, but seen in this constellation and at this conjuncture a timely reading suggested itself: that ‘sacrifice' is the price demanded for renewed ‘growth', and that society continues to use our memories and desires as ‘bait', trading our lives for a few more years of dominion.[1]



Image: Still from Robert-Jan Lacombe's Au revoir Mandima, 2010


The work most evidently influenced by Marker's technique in La Jetée was a video by a young Swiss artist, Robert-Jan Lacombe which likewise revisited a haunting childhood image. Au revoir Mandima (2010, video, 10') renarrated a photograph of the artist as a young (white, European) boy taking leave of the Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) of his childhood, saying goodbye to his (black, African) friends and disappearing into the consumerism and cartoons of far away Europe. Lacombe's work literally and lucidly scans every section of the picture of his young self, preparing to embark on the journey to the North, to adulthood, and away from incipient civil war. Here, as in La Jetée, the image source is static - a colour photograph of the boy and his doctor parents preparing to climb onto a small plane, surrounded by their former friends, neighbours, and patients. The film dissects the central image and journeys out from it on divergent image chains, opening the family archive to reveal other scenes, the young boy at play with his cousins in France or with his friends in Zaire. Once again the protagonist of this story is displaced, sent across space and time (i.e. ‘combined and uneven development' means that all our journeys involve time travel), separated and reassembled for life in a richer, whiter society. ‘You're already thinking of Europe' says the voice over, addressing his childhood image, ‘You think of ice cream, Nutella, fresh milk, elevators, your cousins, cartoons at grandmas...' But the narrator is also losing something, almost everything: ‘But do you realise what is happening? Do you realise you wont come back?' It's goodbye to the old gang, to Swahili, to the people with whom 'you' learned to speak, ‘full stop'. Like the image of childhood in La Jetée we begin to understand this scene of departure as a kind of death, a kind of instant real subsumption under the future. The film itself is quietly devastating, successfully reanimating and reactivating an otherwise mute and private image. And one is acutely aware of other stories not narrated here that end in literal deaths, trauma of a different order.


As a whole (of fragments) Les Marques Aveugle sustained this level of coherence, each work engaging others in a productive play of resemblance and difference. There was evidence of both the continuing legacy of Marker and Frampton and, beyond the categories of authorship and the canon, the persistence of the image as a mark, a wound, in a supposedly virtualised reality. The show reminded one of the sting and burn of images. Not only those which, as in Frampton's film, are literally incinerated, or which burn in the memory (‘nostalgia' as an overblotting of images, a condition in which one instant is being over-written by the memory of the previous and the preview of the next), but also, as in Gitte Villesen's photocollage and video interviews with participants in the first Auschwitz trial, which hurt because of the ambivalence as well as the awfulness of their testimony: Authentic. Objective. Subjective. Or Which Rules Does one Follow? (2004) - the work's title raises the question of scientific standards of truth, a rather different but still related approach to that in Rosa Barba's archaeology. Here the reconstruction of a historical trauma was at issue. The occasion for the enquiry - the restaging of the trial as an art exhibition - provoked an insistence by the artist on her own part in the epistemological process, emphasising (in Heisenbergian fashion?) the interplay between subject and object: ‘the one asking the questions always affect[s] the answer and the reaction.'[2] This in turn raised questions about the whole process of re-enacting the trial, and what it says about contemporary society's potential to stop repeating its violent marking of us all. However solicitous to the past, to the truth, the obscenity of the system is perhaps most pungent where the effort is made to ‘do justice' to a particular atrocity.


Other works in the show engaged with the mark as historical record at drastically less momentous levels while, in their minimalist attention to their means, sharing a certain reference to film. At the entrance to the exhibition there was Pavel Büchler's conceptual piece The Shadow of its Disappearance, 30 September 2011, Sunrise/Sunset, 2011. Two framed sketches with the stubs of the pencils that made them, the work presented the indexical and representational trace of the two pencils' gradual consumption in the process of recording their own shadows over the course of a particular sunny day. A feedback loop of sorts producing a graph of the means of representation's progressive depletion. In his introduction to the work at the launch, Büchler was acute about its relation to Frampton's performance script, A Lecture, in which the film-maker (and retired photographer) demonstrated that the essence of cinema is not celluloid but the projector, and the creation of obstructions between it and the screen. ‘Our white rectangle is not "nothing at all". It is, in the end, all we have. ... So if we want to see what we call more, which is actually less, we must devise ways of subtracting, of removing, one thing and another, more or less, from our white rectangle.'[3]


Katja Mater's Density Drawing (polaroids), (2011) produced something out of the ‘nothing' of a corner of the exhibition space, putting the photographic image into a kind of representational relay with painting and installation. The process began with a white triangular wedge on the floor (still present) and ended with a series of polaroids of a monochrome painting pinned to the wall. Like the highest stage of a formal reification, the photos evidenced the vanishing mediator of the painting, which seems to have been altered progressively and rephotographed at different stages between two extremes of blankness - black and white. Like Büchler's work, this sequence could be read as a kind of film liberated from the condition of movement, a series of stills, like La Jetée. Minimalism's legacy here seemed to be a continued attention to the material/institutional support, but not one of institutional critique; Villesen's work was closer to this kind of enquiry into its conditions.



Image: Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet, Avant le monde, et après (sérial), 2011
Courtesy: the artists and Marcelle Alix, Paris. Photo: Annik Wetter


On the other side of the exhibition, which it should be mentioned took place in the former warehouse space that constitutes the Centre d'Art Contemporain (the gallery itself is always the most material example of refunctioning and retroactive action ‘in' any show), was Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet's new work Avant le monde, et après (serial) (2011). A translucent scroll of responses to Bachofen's hypothesis of prehistoric matriarchy or ‘Le droit maternel' developed in the mid 19th century, this particular ‘film' would be unrolled gradually over the course of the exhibition. Interspersed with scraps of advertising blurb instancing the fascination for ‘Prehistoric women', their ‘Savage struggle!' and ‘Primitive passions!' in pulp movies of the 1950s, this work of ‘Serial' archaeology placed two (or more) different texts in parallel to create another kind of (typographic/textual) ‘movie'. It read as an unscientific (playful, interested), but serious, enquiry into a primal scene rather different from, but related to, that which structures La Jetée or Au revoir Mandima. One could connect the historical constellation presented here to the post-WW2 ‘consumer society' as a new phase of primitive accumulation and struggle for recognition of women's labour, with its own reminting of myths and counter-myths. Or consider the present crisis through the prism of the lost maternal abundance which structures both Bachofen (and Marker's) narratives of social alienation. Can we go back? If we did, would She be there? Does idealised matriarchy only exist by virtue of the obstructions of (capitalist) patriarchy, a mythical back projection? (Chris Knight and Camille Power - please take note). As the carefully inked transparency with its montage of textual fragments made clear, Bachofen's influential theories emerged from this Swiss jurist's descent into the antique tombs below Rome, to the ancient city. As the artists point out, Walter Benjamin - whose ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History' link retroactive action with a materialist historiological principle of engagement (epistemological subject and object are mutually constituting, effect produces cause) - admired Bachofen. In the Arcades Project, he held up the notion that the ‘mother right' excavated by the jurist, and the conception of ‘nature as a ministering mother' could oppose capitalism's ‘murderous idea of the exploitation of nature.' On the other hand, Benjamin also suggested that the conditions of a mythical primal origin are ‘installed in the heart of commodity capitalism itself.'[4] No communism, polyamory and nomadism without domination - or at least, not yet.


Hervé & Maillet's work's own dialectical montage technique (antiquarian mythology intercut with pulp primitivism) emphasised the contradictions involved in a return to myths of matriarchy as a counter to techno-scientific domination. Barba's and Villesen's scepticism toward scientific mythology reverberated with this elegant piece of philological ‘cinema'. One wondered where the unrolling of the textual montage might lead over the course of the show, but clearly there was an attempt here to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of primitivism and patriarchy.


By emphasising the multiple valences of the ‘mark', Les Marques Aveugle reminded one of Adorno's conception of art as sedimented suffering. The aesthetic is always marked by social violence, every document of civilisation a document of barbarism. Along with its carefully structured correlation of art works and themes, it was also clear that this constellation itself is only possible because trauma remains abundant; the one raw material we don't seem to be running out of. Art's energy packs come not from the technologically perfected future, but as Benjamin saw, its ruinous past and crisis stricken present. To discover the persistence or resonance of some of Marker and Frampton's concerns and techniques evidenced through something more than mere recycling or reproduction indicates signs of life, or at least vigor mortis, in the culture of an undead capitalism. Les Marques Aveugles was encouraging in that it took a potentially hackneyed curatorial trope and made it remarkable once more.


Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is a contributing editor to Mute



Also featured in the show: Hito Steyerl November, 2004, video, 25'; Margaret Salmon Untitled (Colour Line), 2011, 16mm film transferred to video, 3'; and Akram Zaatari, Red Chewing Gum, 2000, video, 10'. The project includes a four-screenings cycle presented at the Grütli cinemas. (19.01 - 22.01.2012): Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Brent Green, Isidore Isou, William E. Jones. Curators: Katya García-Antón and Emilie Bujès. The show is part of the project ‘Spirales. Fragments d'une mémoire collective autour de Chris Marker' (25.11 - 4.12.2011) developed in collaboration with various cultural partners in Geneva.



[1] Like Rosa Barba’s film, with ‘La Jetée’ we are again in the tunnels, though this time underneath the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. This is just up the avenue from the Palais de Tokyo and the Musee d’Art Moderne. The project to send a sensitive and memorious protagonist through time to save the world would, in an alter-modern future, be run not by aesthetically challenged scientists but by a curator like Nicolas Bourriaud. Cultural regeneration had the same utopian-technocratic temporal and economic logic, exploited the same ruse of history, though the scheming scientists were displaced by culturepreneurs. Artists took the bait, marked by an image from their childhoods, restoring a facsimile of ‘industry’ but ending up displaced and erased. The temporal convolutions always ended in coffeeshops. 

[2] Gitte Villesen in an interview with Lotte Møller, here: 

[3] Hollis Frampton, ‘A Lecture’,

[4] Peter J. Davies, Myth, Matriarchy, and modernity: Johann Jakob Bachofen in German culture 1860 - 1945, p.399. Berlin, De Gruyter, 2010.





Trading Futures, Consolidating Student Debt

December 20, 2011 - 9:44am
By Angela Mitropoulos

With a mass default on US student debt threatening to create the next subprime crisis, Angela Mitropoulos dissects the pious injunction to ‘live within ones means', reminding us that to do so has always implied the back-breaking, often immeasurable work of others


In the United States, student debt has outstripped credit card debt, nervously edging toward the one trillion dollar mark and tracked by escalating commentary, protest and defaults. Indeed, student debt has surfaced as one of the abiding themes of #occupy in recent months, foregrounding the already systemic alignment of those protests with university occupations, the anti-austerity campaigns in Europe, campaigns against foreclosures resulting from the collapse of the subprime housing market in the US which, it might be added, emerged a decade or so after the debt-elicited Structural Adjustment Programmes that spurred the anti-summit protests.


Facing one of the highest rates of unemployment in recent times, an unprecedented two thirds of 2010 graduates in the US held debts above the $25,000 mark. Moreover, the number of graduates carrying debt from the more Draconian private loans schemes leapt from just over 930,000 in 2003-04 to slightly under 3 million in 2007-08, and (leaving aside federal loans) is currently estimated at around six billion dollars. Pointing, as it does, to the possibility of large scale default, the growing gap between student debt and (potential) income is not only the financialised trace of conflicts over the expansion of contingent labour, of sharply declining wages and access to welfare, and of an increasingly privatised, costly education system. It is also the signal of the deeply racialised appearance of subprime loans schemes which are adjudicated by variable interest rates and unprecedented limits on the discharging of debts.



Image: Gustave Doré, illustration for Canto XII of Dante Alighieri's The Vision of Purgatory, Part 3, 1861-1868


To be sure, debt became the means of deferring declining incomes and, particularly in the case of recent student debt, the source of brief respites from - or hopes of escaping - increasingly precarious work. As education was privatised and tuition costs rose by six hundred per cent from 1980 (in the main to provision corporate managements and real estate value), by 2007 a thriving (and, it might be added, prescient) private loans industry was furnished with legislation that made it impossible to discharge debts through recourse to bankruptcy. Tightening restrictions on the bankruptcy provisions of student loans that began - perhaps unsurprising - in 1978, student debt is situated in the exceptional legal zone of debts accrued through fraud or crime. More recently, while President Obama promised debt relief, he excluded the private loan sector. Though its profits remain enormous, its earnings have fallen in recent times between 10 and 40 percent depending on the company, and so the private loan industry continues to spend heavily on political lobbying to stem further decline by ensuring the constant renegotiation of unbreakable contracts. While the greater proportion of loans remain federally-funded and guaranteed, the biggest increase in student debt has been in the subprime market. That is, private loans for smaller initial debts bearing more onerous conditions: over half of such loans are for attendance at institutions charging less than $10,000; they have few, if any, provisions for hardship; interest rates are not fixed, and they are almost impossible to discharge. That the expansion of student debt has been a lever for the increasing enrolment of poorer students is indicated by the rise in the numbers of African-American undergraduates taking out private loans, quadrupling between 2003-04 and 2007-08. Some of this went to supplementing insufficient federal loans, a further index of rising costs and declining incomes.


Rates of default, late payment and evasion continue to climb and are predicted to worsen. An estimated 50 billion dollars worth of federal loans are already in default. And, as with the subprime housing market, there are those who would denounce not the injunction to repay what could have been made available, but the fleeting avoidance of austerity in increasingly cramped conditions. There is talk of a speculative ‘bubble' in education, in readiness for a bust. Speculation, it seems, is the prerogative of Wall Street. As is debt, since it should go without saying that stock exchanges are involved in raising money for corporate use in the form of shares. Bailouts perform a similar function. For everyone else, debt and speculation remain morally suspect, the chance of deferring the settling of accounts and determinations of value, a dangerous break in the logic of commensurability, representation and right that ostensibly links income and labour, yet construes surplus labour as a type of indebtedness. That is to say, workers are assumed to owe employers more work than is reckoned necessary for their own renewal. This transactional modification of the sentimentalised, unmeasured ways in which domestic labour is often rendered as obligation, and that slaves were considered to be fugitives until they performed the labour regarded as due their masters,i continues to be understood as a variant of indebtedness. In its increasingly precarious forms, that indebtedness troubles the boundaries of recognition and recompense that apparently connect the wage to the ‘normal working day', returning us to the question of the allocation of the surplus rather than the assignment of right.


So, while these figures surrounding student debt are striking, they detail the larger questions campaigns against debt have to confront. Debt is, above all, the reach for a future that might be other than the present, or just a bit better. These student debts are contractual projections of financial obligation into the prospective time of the future. They forge intense links by way of interest rates, repayments and rescheduling between the speculative present and a calculable tomorrow. Yet it is in this distance, however fine, between speculation and calculation, between the bold gambling on possibilities and the settling of accounts, or between immeasurable uncertainty and calculable risk, that capitalist futurity becomes recomposed less as an inexorable necessity than a question of whether and how the restoration of austerity might proceed.


Generalised indebtedness holds open possibilities. If debt has become the prominent motif of protests around the world, this is not to suggest that all critiques of debt are anti-capitalist. Or, this is not to imply that all opposition to debt is concerned with the interlocking questions of debt, right and recognition that, for centuries, have made unpaid labour (whether as surplus labour or without pay at all) appear as a more or less naturalised form of indebtedness to capitalists. In other words, insofar as the expansion of debt marks a crisis of social reproduction (financially expressed as a gap between income and expenditure, but nevertheless articulated as a brazen reaching beyond the austerities obliged by this decreasing income), the political question to be posed of various critiques of debt is of the extent of their opposition to (or complicity with) the re-imposition of the injunction: ‘live within one's means'.


Do denunciations of debt servitude imply a critique of the indentured labour that debt obliges or do they merely demand its reallocation according to the seemingly natural lines of race, gender and class? Debt includes a salient instance of speculation (however cynical, foolhardy or prudent) that for conservative critics should only be the prerogative of those who can command the labour of others. Debt is legitimated by its connection to productivity. If debt is not to result in a diminution of income during repayment, it presumes a rising income. Either labour is extended, intensified or acquired from others. This, crudely, is the formula of capital. It is also the logic of investment in human capital that, as it turns out, must be outfitted with moral and legal limits in the form of the unbreakable contracts of student debt, lest the sequestered surplus of capital be misconstrued as general abundance.


Of course, these dynamics have a much longer history than that of recent student debt in the US. Before the much touted turn to neoliberalism in the US, the UK and elsewhere, with their increasingly privatised schema of social reproduction (education, welfare, housing, health care and so on) and the expansion of personal and household debt that this precipitated, the Keynesian welfare state that emerged in the wake of the Second World War was premised on deficit spending. That debt was underwritten by the below-the-line labour in the colonies, by former slaves faring a little better than before, recent migrants and unpaid domestic work. It was guaranteed by imperial force, the credibility of the US dollar as the de facto global currency and that combination of racism, sexism and nationalism that makes below-the-line labour appear natural or obligatory.


But the second half of the 20th century was also the history of the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and struggles around unpaid domestic work, the unprecedented reversal of colonial flows, the emergence of migrant workers' movements and more. In this, the boundaries that had limited the demands on the Keynesian state to the family wage claims of citizens gave way to fiscal crisis, switching the displacement of debt from the geographic, racialised and gendered architectures of Fordism to those of post-Fordism. This, in turn, entailed the spread of contingent labour, the relocation of debt from the state to households, and an emphasis on human capital formation. The post-Fordist financialisation of daily life, the indistinction between the time of work and that of life ushered in by the expansion of precarious work, and the personalisation of debt are, in this regard, less a signal of the appearance of a new epoch than of the collapse of the Fordist compromise between sections of the working class and capital in the wake of its challenge by those who were not deemed to be parties to the deal, but nevertheless made it possible.


If all this raises the question of just who is indebted to whom, it might also trouble the moral injunction against debt, reanimated during times of crisis, that was written into the historically pivotal pact between ecclesiastical authorities and merchant capitalists at capitalism's inauguration. Threatened by the anti-feudal struggles, the Scholastics turned to Aristotle to both enable speculation and limit it to its specifically capitalist (i.e., re-/productive) forms. In their insistences that income should only be accumulated by labour, just as sex should only be for the purpose of women going into labour, the Scholastic tirades against debt were always intended for the lower classes. Surplus was, is, reserved for capitalists. Church prohibitions against usury were invented at around the same time as purgatory and the introduction of indulgences. Just as sermons against gambling, sex and excessive pleasure reached a crescendo in the Middle Ages, the Church invented the space of purgatory situated between heaven and hell where one could pay off one's debts, and it fabricated the means by which one could literally buy one's way into heaven with a donation. These apparently anti-capitalist decrees, with significant caveats for capitalists themselves, remain the hallmark of conservative critiques of debt. They are the Middle Ages version of lobbying and bailout. Moreover, the current resort to the unbreakable contract (the neo-contractualism of welfare, student debt and more) returns to early forms of contract as it emerged from theological understandings of covenant: absolutely binding, transcendental and infinite. For conservatives today, the expansion of debt is a problem because the crisis of reproduction it signals can, with widespread default, segue into a crisis of capitalist futurity more generally.


Unpaid debt, very simply put, holds out the possibility of ‘living beyond one's means' when the means of re-/production are no longer in one's easy reach. The revival of Aristotelianism at the very moment of its historical obsolescence during capitalism's rise - something a little more complex than what Marx nevertheless grasped through his insight into the historically momentous separation of the worker from the means of production - marks a persistent feature of attempts to reimpose the demarcations that makes capitalism what it is. If the Scholastics borrowed Aristotle's understanding of language, with its stress on commensurability and representation, at a time when value had become speculative and uncertain, the recourse to an Aristotelian distinction between politics and economics today indicates a similarly anachronistic move in far from critical understandings of the conditions of capitalism. Aristotelian equality, as Marx notes, cannot conceive a specifically capitalist equivalence, the commensurability of the qualitatively incommensurate, just as (I would add) his realist theory of language has difficulty admitting the future-contingent that defines the contractual, and his understanding of logical axioms can only assume the representation of natural rather than contingent value.


As fleeting as Marx's remarks on Aristotle were, he nevertheless noted that this limit to Aristotle's thinking relates to the situation of slavery in ancient times. In other words, the neo-Aristotelian emphasis on a repartitioning of politics and economics - more or less explicit in the arguments of Polanyi, Foucault and Arendt, as well as in calls for a return to ‘real democracy' - rely on a crucial fudging. For Aristotle, the egalitarianism between free men in the polis (city) was necessarily predicated on the slavery that was relegated to the oikos (household). Leaving aside the question of whether the logic of democracy partakes of the sense of capitalist equivalence rather than equality as Aristotle could have understood it (as with Arendt's idealisation of ancient democracy), the resort to neo-Aristotelianism either romanticises the oikos (as do Polanyi and Foucault), or it sidesteps the decisive question posed by the expansion of debt at this particular time, and as the issue makes an appearance in the occupations.


In doing so, it abandons the critical conjuncture of default and occupation that points not to a revival of democracy (since the models of decision making are not democratic but take their cues from decentralised networking), but instead to experiments with ‘promiscuous infrastructures' that have been ongoing in protest camps for more than a decade, from Seattle to Tahrir and beyond.ii In the seemingly tangential arguments over how to organise the labour that goes in to sustaining the occupations, how to arrange kitchens, energy, medical care, shelter, communications and more, in the correlations between homelessness and the #occupy encampments, in the very question posed of how to take care of each other in conditions of palpable uncertainty, live the pertinent issues of the oikos in these times. It is not surprising, then, that in her discussion of the occupations at the University of California, Amanda Armstrong begins with foreclosures and the transformation of universities into real estate in order to go on to highlight the centrality of ‘bonds of care' to both the protests and the creation of a different kind of university.iii If debt marks a crisis of social reproduction, then the question surely becomes how to generate forms of life beyond its specifically capitalist forms?


The boundary between economics and politics is mutually constitutive. It has been constantly reconfigured not by capitalists but in the process of their pursuit of fugitive slaves from modern sites of oiko-nomics: the flight of women from the home, working class children from the factories their parents laboured in, the middle classes from increasingly precarious labour, the great grandchildren of slaves from the servitude of workfare, migrants from impoverishment and devastation. To dream of returning to a fanciful time of self-sufficiency and independence is to yearn for the conditions that made the subject of politics or the head of the household possible, and so for the reconstruction of the boundaries erected against this flight. Debt made this flight viable, but it is for the most part the debt that might be understood in terms of the irreducible, incalculable inter-dependence of sharing a world if not always a circumstance. As Annie McClanahan put it, the growing calls for mass student default mark a challenge to ‘the temporal logic of indebtedness', the discovery of ‘a present in which our debts are only to one another.'iv


In this sense, the increasingly common predicament of financial debt bondage calls not for the restoration of a common identity as the demos (the fantasy of a return to the putative nobility of politics untainted by slavery); nor for a rallying of the university as an apparently meritorious machinery of credit and value unsullied by the presence of (former) slaves; nor, still, for the re-imposition of what it might mean to ‘live within one's means' for those deprived of the means of life without labouring (not alongside but) for another. It calls instead for the political consolidation of student debt with all the other forms of debt that dare to venture beyond austerity, for the transformation of infinite debt into endless credit, and a break with the capitalist limits on speculation. As the implications of student indebtedness unfold into already-uncertain financial circuitry, or are quarantined by the wall of the unbreakable contract, debt may well serve as the projection of the present into a calculable, foreclosed future. Or, in the congruence of default and occupation, it just might wander beyond the intimate reckonings of human capital's self-imposed imperatives into the creation of infrastructures of another kind of indebtedness and conjecture.



Angela Mitropoulos <s0metim3s AT> is presently in Sydney. Her most recent writings are 'Legal, Tender: The Genealogical Economy of Pride, Debt and Origin' (Social Text, 29:3), 'Uncanny Robots and Affective Labour in the Oikonomia (Cultural Studies Review, forthcoming 18:1), and Contract and Contagion (forthcoming) on which much of the above analysis is based.





iOn this last point, see Stephen Best's The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

iiThe phrase is borrowed from Anna Feigenbaum and the Creative Resistance Research Network's studies of protest camps.

iiiAmanda Armstrong, ‘States of Indebtedness: Care Work in the Struggle against Educational Privatization,' South Atlantic Quarterly 110:2, 2011.

ivAnnie McClanahan, ‘Coming Due: Accounting for Debt, Counting on Crisis', South Atlantic Quarterly 110:2, 544.

Stop the eviction of the Bloomsbury Social Centre!

December 14, 2011 - 10:00am
By Bloomunist

The Bloomsbury Social Centre is currently under threat of violent eviction from SOAS management.  We need your help. We have been in existence now for three weeks. In that time we've helped organise towards the 30 November Strike, organised tenants' rights workshops, and co-ordinated with student occupations in Birmingham and Cambridge. We've hosted seminars and readings groups on the financial crisis, initiated Spanish classes to aid activists campaigning alongside migrant labour, screened political cinema, housed temporarily students, provided meeting space for students, workers and residents of Bloomsbury,  and – in general – have tried to push forward the struggle for better conditions of life both in this area and beyond it; both in the University and outside. During that time SOAS management made no attempt to negotiate with us. When post-graduates from the School came to talk about the future of the space, they did so on their own initiative. Two days ago we received a notice of possession. This evening representatives of the School arrived to serve us with a High Court Injunction. SOAS has no more intention than does the rest of the University of London to provide autonomous space for its constituents. Amid the proliferating commercial zones, outside the internal markets with their managers and their “booking systems”, spaces like this one are rare. Access to them is infrequent. Unless the attempt violently to eject us from the building is resisted, forcefully and with spirit, spaces like this might well cease to exist entirely. We write to request your support. The managements of SOAS (the current leaseholders) and the University of London (the previous, who left it to rot) can't be allowed to crush effortlessly all attempts to resist the markets they serve. By passing motions in your trade union branch or student union, you can raise the political cost of eviction. Below is a brief model text.  We would appreciate putting your name to it in a personal capacity, and/or passing through your branch in order to show support for the Social Centre.  To add your name reply to this email; we'd like to post the text on our blog today, with a short list of names to get the ball rolling. _________ Dear SOAS Management, We the undersigned believe that the Bloomsbury Social Centre represents a bright and necessary contrast to the market structures currently being imposed across UK Higher Education. It has been in existence now for three weeks. In that time it has helped to organise towards the 30 November Strike, organised tenants' rights workshops, and co-ordinated with student occupations in Birmingham and Cambridge. It has hosted seminars and readings groups on the financial crisis, initiated Spanish classes to aid students campaigning alongside migrant workers, screened political cinema, housed temporarily homeless students, provided meeting space for fellow trade unionists, and – in general – has tried to push forward the struggle for better conditions of life both in this area and beyond it; both in the University and outside. It is unreasonable and unjust to proceed with an eviction against students who are struggling to improve the education and conditions of life for their peers and their neighbours. The occupiers are willing to negotiate an exit in early January, which will allow them to complete their organising projects, and which will obviate the need for an expensive and potentially violent eviction. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to begin a process of negotiation with the Social Centre. There are political as well as monetary costs at stake.



Our response to SOAS management’s eviction threat

Dear SOAS management,

We write to express our disappointment that you have begun legal proceedings against us. We are aware that such proceedings can result in the use of violence against students; this is a situation we are very keen to avoid.

In addition to the SOAS students involved in the occupation from its beginning, many SOAS undergraduates, post-graduates and academics have flowed through our doors in the last three weeks. Most have been extremely supportive of (and many have been involved in) the activities here. The accessibility of this previously disused building, on lease from the University of London, has also been welcomed by students, lecturers and trade unionists from universities across the capital.

While you have claimed that you will suffer financial damages from our continued use of the building, this should be weighed against the political damages you may suffer in consequence of an eviction. This is a concern that has been raised in our discussions with affected SOAS post-graduate students, with whom our meetings and discussions have continued in a warm, friendly spirit.

We wish to continue our activities in the building for a time, not forgoing the peaceful, non-violent manner that – as you note in your application for an injunction – has characterised the Social Centre so far. To this end, we would like to negotiate a mutually agreeable time for our departure from the building. Our suggested date is January 10th 2012, at the beginning of the new SOAS term. This time would provide us with a few weeks in which to continue the necessary political work in which we are engaged with residents and employees in and around Bloomsbury.

We would appreciate a response before the court date on Thursday morning, as we believe that this kind of negotiation can save time and expenses for both of us.

Yours faithfully,



If you would like to sign a statement in support of the Social Centre, please email bloomsburysocialcentre AT gmail DOT com

Mic check

December 13, 2011 - 11:05pm
By belleletriste

the decision about what to do next is being mic checked:

some people

just can't break

down their sentences


to be echoed

up the chain


keep saying

too few words

or too many and have to make with the


this seems

particularly hard

for those schooled

in the oratorical


of the organised


their expressive


are shattered

the rhetoric


is this



(broken up)

(broken down)







the end of the line

for the socialist


the use of new

collective techniques

(low tech)

to extend

the range

of limited






poetry like

ron silliman's

had already introduced

the autonomised line

which seemed to float

apart from the previous

and following line

quite some time

before 1989

a negation

of continuity

in response to the 60s

revolt against the

production line

extending revolt

into the line

of verse

[c.f. Joel Duncan

who argues this well

in a forthcoming


and now

it's back

by grace of

mic check

practiced on

an industrial


subject to a hypotaxis

that he shunned

but which he

no doubt

wd love.

there is a total


to where the line break falls

to what is said

with mic


but could there

should there

be some way

to make

it fun?

to make the words


break and spread?

to make the break to flow?

howard slater's

reading last week

at the mute

book launch

was the first

instance i

have encountered

of someone

feeding their

poetry to the mic check

and it was

also great.

but has anyone

written any

mic check

poetry yet?

and should it


with mic check

every line

is a double A rhyme


or poor

unless it's double mic check

or doubledowned


like CDS bets

on TBFs


from Oakland

Stupid Regulators and Greedy Financiers or Business as Usual?

December 13, 2011 - 9:13am
By Chris Wright

As the occupy movement in the US this week shifts its attention from the shiny crystallisations of high finance to the hubs of material circulation, Chris Wright reviews Paul Mattick Jr.'s book, Business as Usual, and asks: what is missed by shouting down only one aspect of capitalism?


The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations which have sprung up around the United States express in their very name the common sense analysis of the economic crisis which began in 2007-8. Wall Street (aka finance capital) is out of control and the regulatory mechanisms in place aren't working. And it is not just in the US. The debt crisis in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland threatens the stability of the entire eurozone and has engendered its own massive strikes and demonstrations. Speculative and credit instruments are to blame, cut off from the real production of real goods. Bad fictitious capital is undermining good real capital. Swimming against the current is Paul Mattick, Jr.'s book Business as Usual. Couched in a popular style, a bit too much so when he glosses over hotly contested ideas, it nevertheless represents a major improvement over more widely read works like David Harvey's Neoliberalism: A Brief History. If the style is popular, the analysis is not and it provides a necessary rejoinder to both left and right populism.

Image: 'Populism not Corporate Facism' - Occupation of Zuccotti Park New York, 2011


The book begins with some overview of the inadequate and obfuscatory concepts employed to understand the current crisis through professional economics. His main concern is to show that economic crisis is not caused by external factors, but is built into the functioning of capital. Most specifically, he makes the case, briefly and without sufficient development, that among views which see crisis as endogenous to capitalism, the problem is not one of underconsumption, disproportionality, or overproduction, which all amount to the same complaint about insufficient or imbalanced consumption. Mattick targets the tendency of falling profitability. This is one of those contentious moments, where a citation of relevant discussions in an endnote would have been appropriate, since this is a claim with a long history.

Image: Poster at occupation in Oakland, 2011 


The best part of this argument, however, is not in his popular presentation of a particularly contentious theoretical analysis, but his simple reflection on what drives the economy. Economists of all stripes, left as well as right, seem to operate under the assumption, consciously or unconsciously, that the economy is about the distribution of (scarce) resources to meet needs. However, this is not how capitalism operates. That it distributes resources to meet needs is a side effect of production for the sake of profit. Although this is a somewhat imprecise formulation, it sheds light on many of modern economics’ fallacies. For example, the idea that lower taxes will mean more investment and job growth is simply false if investment in production is not profitable enough. If higher profits can be garnered elsewhere, such as the pilfering of corporate assets by mergers and acquisitions, raiding workers’ retirement funds, reducing benefits, raising fees from workers and consumers, lowering wages, moving production overseas and/or replacing human labour with machines, then no amount of tax decreases will be an incentive to invest in new production and to hire workers.i


Mattick also takes up the problem that government spending does not increase profits either. This is because the government uses money from taxes, that is, value which has been produced elsewhere and appropriated by the government without an equivalent amount of value being created. This has not stopped government spending from being an increasingly important part of capitalist prosperity. Since the early 20th century there has been continual growth in government spending and when it has decreased, recession almost inevitably follows. What that spending is on may change. Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt by increasing military spending and decreasing taxes, while cutting transfer payments to the poor, elderly, children, students, etc. George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all effectively done the same thing. Mattick is careful to show that matters were not better when a reverse policy was pursued by Francois Mitterand in the early 1980's. This led to Mitterand being forced to turn to the same neoliberal policies as the other heads of state by the end of 1983. 

Image: One Dollar Bill distributed at Occupation of Zuccotti Park, New York


In this way the book works to address all of the fundamental apologies for the current crisis: it's not a new phenomenon; it's not the outcome of external factors; government spending is integral to the post-WWI economy; government spending or policy is not a means to end the crisis, but at best a means to mitigate crisis and extend spending; the current prosperity enjoyed in the wealthy countries, especially the US, was predicated on a hitherto unimagined expansion of credit and debt at the level of households, corporations and states; capitalism can't avoid paying the debts it has accrued and it can only escape the current crisis of profitability by a wholesale depreciation of existing wealth.

Image: 'Labour Strife in Financial District', Wall Street Strike leads to a short-lived occupation, March, 1948.


These last two points hit hardest.


Firstly, eventually the piper must be paid. The evaporation in the last two years of the previous 10 years of accumulated wealth is a pretty clear indication that that wealth was largely illusory, or as the popular term has it, fictitious. Even worse, if Mattick is correct a large part of the foundation of ‘Western prosperity’, especially in the US and England where private household debt is well over 100 percent of yearly income, is built on quicksand. The mortgage crisis strikes deeply at the center of that edifice, especially as private home ownership has been the means to the equity which ensured access to loans to cover college for the kids, a high standard of living on cheap credit, low cost loans for a car, etc. The entirety of suburbanism as a development model is exposed to tremendous risk, especially as it always depended on extensive government subsidisation, directly and indirectly.ii


Secondly, getting out of the broader, long-term stagnation that began in the 1970’s will require a catastrophic devaluation and destruction of assets, wages, benefits, and the collapse of many, many companies, as well as probably a restructuring of the global political order in the face of the decline of the dollar. In other words, a renewal of productive investment would require a devaluation on a scale that would re-enable investment at a level of profitability exceeding the current pilfering and gambling. The last such devaluation and destruction of assets was called World War II. In suggesting that government spending can't get us out of this crisis, Mattick breaks sharply with writers like David Harvey who have suggested a ‘New New Deal’ is possible. If Mattick is right, there is no ‘New New Deal’. That avenue existed when government spending was a quite small proportion of GDP. Today, in all of the developed countries, government spending varies from 15 percent to over 50 percent, but in the countries where this appears to be lower, the debt to GDP ratio can be enormous, which is recognised uniformly as not good. Japan, with its mere 15 percent of GDP from government spending, has a public debt that is 225.8 percent of GDP.iii The US public debt to GDP was 62.3 percent, but gross (public and private), it was 92.3 percent, indicating the extremely high private debt load in the US Debt to GDP ratios for all of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan, that is, the most developed nations accounting for the vast majority of global wealth production and income, is almost uniformly over 60 percent, and that was in 2009. In the last two years, matters have gotten worse. Even if a ‘New New Deal’ were possible, which seems nearly impossible, it overlooks the politically reactionary character of the ‘New Deal’ internationally. The nationalism implicit in such an affair goes hand in hand with a more aggressive global financial stance and the decline of the dollar under conditions where no obvious replacement presents itself and where even if it did, it would entail the collapse of the United States as the dollar ceased to effectively be world money.

Image: Flyer distributed at the occupation of Zuccotti Park, New York, 2011


This does not mean that Business as Usual is a perfect book. Aside from the defects previously mentioned due to its popular style, the book is limited on several points.


Mattick is mistaken on the question of whether or not state expenditure is simply a redistribution of wealth because he overlooks the fact that the state can own and operate production facilities which produce commodities and which sells them. The distribution of profit may not go to private individuals or investors, but at that point there is no difference between the state as capitalist and a private or corporate capitalist. In fact, there is little difference between the internal accounting between units in a state run capitalist economy and the internal accounting between business units within a modern corporation. The market may not be open, but everything is paid for nonetheless as if it were purchased on an open market. However, distortions of the sort one has come to associate with the former ‘socialist states’ do occur because competition on a more or less open market is a critical regulatory mechanism. That is all, however. The state could take over enterprises and run them as a typical commodity producer where particular capitals refused to invest. In the case of needing to restart capital accumulation, it is certainly not impossible to imagine the state taking over certain industries that could then be operated in a market-priced manner at near zero profit for the benefit of total capital, such as energy production, transportation infrastructure and even most commercial and mass transportation systems, retirement, insurance, and healthcare. These are areas where immediate reduction in cost would improve the profitability of all other businesses across the board by dramatically reducing their direct costs. Whether or not this is possible politically is another matter.


The replacement of living labour with dead labour, with machinery, is pointed to as a progressive tendency of capitalist society and Mattick provides some very interesting data backing this up. Yet this point, which has enormous implications for the problem of restarting a new cycle of accumulation, is underplayed. The progressive displacement of living labour by dead is a key reason that each crisis of valorisation is harder to overcome than the last because the relative surplus value created shrinks relative to the overall investment, and today arguably, the absolute amount, of living labour shrinks. Each crisis of valorisation is also a crisis of devalorisation, of how much devalorisation is required for a new cycle of accumulation to begin and limiting how long it will last.

Image: Banner from 30 November strike and march, London, 2011 


The same problem of the crisis of the valorisation process also leads to changes in the labour process. The replacement of living by dead labour is also the replacement of an older labour process with a new labour process. Mattick recognises that the old working class identity and the old working class organisations are gone, but he fails to grasp the root of why this is so. The problem resides in the transformation of the labour process. Not merely the replacement of living labour with dead, but the actual transformation of the relation of living labour to living labour, of dead labour to dead labour, and of living labour to dead labour. The handloom weaver who was replaced by an automatic loom saw her own labour process mechanised and she could completely comprehend the operation of the new machine. The farmer who used to use his seed corn for next year's crop knows nothing about and could not reproduce the genetic manipulation of seed corn by a team of agricultural bioengineers. A highly skilled computer programmer or hardware technician could not produce or design a core processing unit, much less the millions of people who rely on a computer everyday for their work. The tendency is for the labour process to be the direct product and application of scientific knowledge and technique, not a mechanical extrapolation of the labourer driven labour process.


The conclusion is tentative about what can be done, if not what needs to be done, and understandably so in a period where the most radical popular idea about the current crisis seems to be held by both left and right wing populism: blame greedy financiers and regulatory mismanagement. The book is a valuable and eminently readable contribution that goes against the stream not only of apologists for capitalism, but against the stream of angry populisms which miss the mark because they lack a fundamental critique of capitalist production.


Chris Wright <cwright666 AT> is a person living (too little) and working (too much) in Baltimore, MD in the USA



i On retirement funds see Ellen E. Schultz, Retirement Heist, 2011. Bank of America is currently facing a class action lawsuit over its unethical handling of account debits and credits which was designed to maximise customer penalties and levy the maximum number of overdraft fees.

ii Suburbanism is the term I use to describe the spatial development of capitalism which began to supersede urbanism (c.f. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, chapter 7, New York: Zone Books, 1995) after WWII.

iii CIA Factbook

Tesco Value Lager Saved my Life: One Man's Testimony of How to Beat Alcoholism Without Giving up Alcohol

December 9, 2011 - 11:09pm
By Barry Curtis

As everyone knows, alcoholism can be a menace to the individual and society. But is there a safe “inbetween point” for those that like getting half-cut?

Dean Martin once said that you're not drunk if you can lay on the floor without holding on.

Of course, Martin's statement is not really advisable if one wants to live a fruitful live of reasonable length.

However, today's dominant ideology of restraint-at-all-times is also equally reprehensible. Those health warnings on all drinks that advise you should never drink more 2 pints on a day-to-day basis merely represent the Churchy other-extreme to someone like Martin.

In truth, alcohol is wonderful if handled skilfully, much like a sailor both has to negotiate the power of the tides whilst being in awe of the power of the open ocean and its weather.

Thus as a tip, my recommendation to people who have difficulty controlling their alcohol intake, is Don't join the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You'll merely be oscillating from Dean Martin's extreme to the neo-priesthood of DrinkAware.

For example, the AA's first indoctrination to alcoholics is that “admit you are powerless over alcohol”. To my mind, this does not rescue the individual, it merely converts him into a Victim. For if you are truly powerless, you can't be the skilful sailor, merely a sap guzzling spirits to the grave in a delirium of abjectivity.

Of course the AA seek to advance on the “powerless” thesis by promoting religious self-flagellation instead. But if your previous God was alcohol, is the resurrected Jesus really any better? At least alcohol is real...

It's better to realise that you can drink within broadly safe parameters whilst still enjoying your thrill. The key here is to switch your drinks. You can drink the same amount if only you switch to drinks with lower percentages.

I think that when you hit your mid-thirties, it's time for the change. Until this point, I was drinking in excess of 100 units a week for most of the previous 20 years. (Note to Doctor: I didn't die, so you're wrong about that too). At my nadir (or height if you're from a pro-alcohol perspective) I exceeded 200 units a week. Mercifully this was only for 6 months whilst I worked an early morning graveyard shift at the local Co-op. I have probably incurred some liver damage from this epoch, but mercifully not enough that I have to become tee-total. Now I feel that Tesco Value Lager (TVL) is satisfactory for a night in (though I still like real ale if I'm in a pub). If I stayed in my Frosty Jacks/Carlsberg Special Brew period forever, I'd probably now be dead. But with the aid of TVL, I reckon there's a couple of decades of fight left in this bloated body.

Someone in the UK who was problematically drinking 6 cans of Stella Artois lager (5%) every night without exception should probably go through a Carlsberg phase (3.8%) before settling on a discount 2% brew available in most supermarkets, e.g. Tesco Value Lager, or Asda Smart Price lager. I infinitely prefer Tesco Value Lager to Asda Smart Price – although they're both now only 70p for a four-pack, the Asda concoction is brewed with wheat rather than hops which impairs the taste.

These low-percentage supermarket beers are literally a life-saver for those who sense they need to cut down yet hate the AA. Despite some reviews on the internet that say these beers are merely yellow-coloured water that taste vaguely of barley, in fact the Tesco variety is fairly gourmet.

On 2% lager, one could never attain Dean Martin's definition of drunkenness. But if you have at least 6 cans, you'll feel a tad happier. Moreover, you can drink almost as many as you want without harming your health drastically.

For example, studies have found that drinking up to 60 units a week gives you the same life expectancy as a tee-totaller (moderate drinkers live longer than tee-totallers). The Graph of Death is a J-shaped curve, meaning that someone that drinks no alcohol is at the same risk of premature death as someone who drinks 60 units.

If you go above 60 units per week repeatedly, then you will probably seriously curtail your life expectancy. Therefore someone who loves drinking lots of beer every night should make the switch to something like TVL .

For on TVL, you can drink 8 cans a night, only consuming 7.2 units per night, adding up to a weekly total of 50.4 units. Any alcoholics reading this might instinctively wonder if they'd be satisfied with 7.2 units if they're used to 30 units from a 75cl bottle of 40% vodka. But trust me folks – you get a bloated feeling that will mean you won't want much more, and your fix is still appeased.

Following my recommendations, if you are to die from an alcohol-related disease, it may be offset to your 70s rather than younger. Someone who stayed within the Government's boring limits of 24 units would probably live longer, but hey, at least you'll have a much more enjoyable existence than Mr Sensible.

As for those who are worried they are binging on wine, a good tip might be to switch to Lambrusco or some other low-alcohol wine. You can still drink every night, but what might have been 10 units a night can become only 4.

Switching to low percentage alcohol like TVL or Lambrusco is much like how heavy smokers find they can still enjoy the electronic cigarettes on the market, thus bypassing the patronising way they may be treated on the NHS. You can still get the nicotine, just a fair bit less, be yourself, and avoid being treated like an ignoramus who can't control their “addictions”.

Society needs a rational approach to alcohol. Rather than all the clamour for total restraint that emerges from health professionals and the Government which is really about prescribing a life of limits based on non-experimentation and self-denial, I'd recommend still having fun drinking, but cut down the percentage of your brand, if your drinking has become a problem.

So forget the AA – that is a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire. The demon drink can remain a friend to those for whom it temporarily overcame.

Of course most people reading this are probably already sensible drinkers. My advice is therefore aimed at the hardened – trust me, the adaptation will leave you better off.

The Illegitimacy of Demands

December 7, 2011 - 9:50am
By Demetra Kotouza


With demands over the wage and welfare in austerity Greece deemed illegitimate because unaffordable, what shape can struggle take? Demetra Kotouza sees the all out attack on living standards as producing a de facto opposition that can't be cohered by ideologies of class


With austerity escalating in Greece this year, there has been a parallel effort to resist it. Several strikes in key industries such as transport and electricity have taken place, mostly in the public sector, and six general strikes, accompanied by demonstrations of growing size and intensity. The ‘indignants' direct democracy movement dominated attention in the summer, expressing parliamentary politics' legitimation crisis. In September, autoreduction practices became more frequent in response to new taxation, while universities and schools were occupied, the former against the new higher education bill and the latter triggered by delays in handing out books.1 In October, a 48-hour general strike, with increased participation from the private sector, and accompanied by the occupation of most of the country's public services and infrastructure, brought everything to a standstill. Despite what was called by many ‘the mother of all strikes' and the largest demonstrations in decades, which many thought might topple the government, the parliament passed a bill that essentially invalidates collective bargaining agreements and opens the way for wages to fall below the minimum. This sent the message that a large 48-hour strike is not enough to win a battle, and that worse is still to come.


Image: ‘Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear’, Exarchia, Athens 2010


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This comes at a time when the struggle around the wage is becoming a matter of survival. Within a year, wages, even for those previously considered quite well off, have fallen below subsistence levels, to the point that paying bills, making rent payments and buying basics has become a widespread problem. This, combined with payment stoppages by employers, high unemployment and the decline of the petit bourgeoisie, as small businesses go bust one after another, is making survival the central question today, and the existence of the wage itself the most critical demand. However, it is not only this ruthless and abrupt attack on wages and labour rights, compounded by intensifying police repression, that makes these struggles particularly tough. Current struggles are facing a grim horizon, as the demands they voice are presented as impossible; even if small battles are won, it is unclear how winning the war would be possible when it is no longer fought at the level of a national economy, but rather in the midst of a global crisis with Greece as one of its epicentres. These battles are confronted with the risk of a default that could send shockwaves through the global financial system and bring about a wider recession and deeper impoverishment. To the extent that a default can indeed be triggered by the government's inability to implement austerity, these struggles appear to be self-destructive. But even if a default is inevitable, its prospect thwarts any hopes for a long-term victory that would make space for workers to go on the offensive. Facing this situation, it has become difficult to pose even defensive wage demands in a way that is effective and proportionate to capital's attack. The intense struggles that continue to take place have a feeling of despair, of hitting a wall.


This is not a condition that only characterises the class struggle in Greece, or even one that suddenly emerged in the current crisis. The global capitalist restructuring, which dismantles the social democratic institutions that guarantee survival for unemployed populations, began long ago. In so many ways it represents a return of the working class to its ‘proper' condition, to its ‘proper' entirely dependent relation to capital. Unemployment, both as a constant risk and a potentially long-term condition, as precarity, as integral to the condition of the working class, is becoming ever more prominent today. However, the current stage of crisis and restructuring is not a return to the situation existing prior to the birth of social democracy. The capitalist restructuring that began in the late '70s - characterised by the drive to reduce the cost of labour power through the development of advanced technology, the global zoning of production, and financialisation, with credit supplementing falling wages (up until 2007) to aid the reproduction of labour power in the western world - was a response to an earlier crisis of overaccumulation. The prospect of a renewed Keynesian ‘deal', of a realignment of consumption with the wage, to ‘productive' industrial capitalism, and the separation of national economies, is no longer possible because it is precisely what had to be done away with to overcome that crisis. Most importantly, the real subsumption of labour under capital has advanced to a level where there is no longer any possibility of a flight from capital for surplus populations as was the case with, for example, the creation of alternative, non-capitalist communes in the 19th century and Great Depression-era America. Class struggle is forced to address the capital relation itself, at the same time as capital denies the proletariat's role as the productive class which, as Théorie Communiste rightly argue, seriously undermines its ability to affirm itself within this antagonism.


This is confounded by the fact that there is no longer a singular, unifying working class experience that would generate a common identity on one side of the class struggle. The global and local zoning of production, and increasing precarisation, has fractured working class communities pushing, in the West, a large section into chronic unemployment and to survival through informal and illegal economies. In the global South, significant populations have been forced to emigrate to the West despite brutal repression.


In this moment of global crisis, this tendency manifests itself with great intensity in the ‘second' zone of capitalist development and particularly in Greece. When even the demand for work cannot be satisfied at a broader, systemic level, let alone for the capacity of the wage to cover subsistence, even defensive wage demands appear structurally illegitimate whilst also being a matter of survival. The working class is having a hard time affirming itself as life - as labour power that needs to be reproduced - let alone as a productive force, in its relation to both capital and the state that used to guarantee its survival. The question of ‘lost unity' also emerges as a central one, as conflicts within struggles intensify.


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Image: ‘Fuck May 68, Fight Now’, Exarchia, Athens


The contradiction between the necessity of the wage demand, and its lost legitimacy reappeared in the indignants' direct democracy movement. The call for ‘direct democracy now' rejected, in principle, the address of demands to a denounced political establishment and parliamentary system. It rejected dominant avenues of representation - the political parties and major unions - and put forward a call for self-organisation: ‘taking our lives into our own hands'. But, despite this language of autonomy, the movement was also driven by a single demand, namely that the Mid-Term Programme be voted down in parliament.2 This suggests that building a defence within this face-off still takes precedence over any claim that it's time to self-organise and take over.


‘Burn the parliament', the crowd shouted, but that did not amount to a rejection of politics. The direct democracy movement was clearly a political one, attempting to create a new politics from below, and even a political programme. Operating primarily at the level of political discourse, the ‘direct democratic' imaginary envisioned a system of inclusive, bottom-up decision making, self-organised resistance and mutual support in neighbourhoods and workplaces. Similar to the indignants' campaigns in Spain and now the US, it was captivated by the notion that a more ‘decent' life would be possible, if only the citizens had the political power. In the Greek case, the dominant conviction was that direct democracy alone, as a form of decision making, would be able to make capitalist production commensurate with meeting human needs, or, in its rather more militant version, that the democratic self-management of production would ensure those needs were met. The discourse of self-management, coming mostly from an alternativist anarchist tendency, and the broader conception of ‘alternatives' - involving much speculation around alternative currencies and the autonomous circulation of agricultural products - sought to provide ideas for surviving the crisis or, less modestly, ways out of capitalism. However, all those ideas,beyond their historical limitations as practices, remain mostly just ideas, with the exception of creating a temporary self-organised enclave in public space. The attempt to develop immediate social relations within it (the rejection of money, a free collective kitchen, free lessons for homeless children) quickly reached the limit of an all encompassing capital relation (the return of money, closure of the kitchen because junkies and homeless ‘took advantage').


Public political debate, which the direct democracy movement saw as its major strength, was also its limitation. The movement's dominant citizenist, democratic discourse was intrinsic to its inter-class character, explainable by the austerity measures' devastating effect on the petit bourgeois. Militants' attempts to push the discourse of class conflict came up against the principle of the ‘people's' unity. In the midst of a relentless attack on the wage, debates around ‘what is to be done' were muddled, unable to refer to a common class subject, whilst sporadic calls for a long-term general strike and other direct actions remained at the level of discourse. The assembly in Syntagma as well as those in neighbourhoods and towns around the country, mostly resorted to symbolic protests, public statements and expressions of solidarity, boosting or linking up existing struggles. They laboured to initiate actions other than the occupations themselves, which soon reached their own limits.


The imagined unity of national citizens against a failed system of government and decision-making also meant that immigrants were excluded by definition, except in the token action of inviting them to speak and organise events for a single day. Despite the active expulsion of extreme fascists from the Syntagma square occupation, the movement's citizenism was aligned with a growing nationalist anti-imperialist tendency, a response to the erosion of Greece's national sovereignty under the control of the Troika.3 This provided the natural environment for a nationalist campaign against the Memorandum, the ‘300 Greeks', to set up shop, and for autonomous nationalists - who were in many respects unidentifiable so long as they kept quiet - to take part in the movement.4


Ridden with contradictions, the direct democracy movement experienced a fleeting moment of victory during the general strike of 15 June. That was a high point of struggle for the wider oppositional movement, with the PM almost resigning. The police repression and extensive anti-police clashes and rioting that took place during the strike, however, brought up renewed conflict within the Syntagma assembly, when the majority of its constituents rejected a motion that condemned ‘violence in all its forms'. This moment was a major turning point that brought to a head the ongoing debate around proletarian violence. The direct democracy movement's relative tolerance of intense clashes with the police is not so much indicative of an anarchist influence, as of a wider tendency towards the use of such practices. Although these practices have been associated with anarchists, a growing number of their participants are lower-class, precariously employed or unemployed youths - though the age range is broadening - who are more or less unrelated to the anarchist milieu. They accounted for a significant subsection within the direct democracy movement, to the extent that much of the assembly audience responded to conspiracy theories about ‘violent agent provocateurs' by saying that ‘the rioters are us'. After the defeat of 29 June, when the Mid-Term Austerity Programme was finally passed in parliament, rioting, as well as police repression of the demonstration, became exceptionally fierce, driving even more of those who had previously favoured ‘peaceful protest' to change their minds. However this shift could not translate into practice at that stage. With the direct democracy movement weakened by its defeat, its internal contradictions combined with zero tolerance policing, a new round of struggles was anticipated.

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Image: ‘Rob Me’, written on shutters of a bank, Athens, 2011


The voting through of the Mid-Term Austerity Programme was followed by August's fast tracked vote on the new higher education bill that limits degrees to three years, flexibilises work contracts and rationalises university management, making further steps towards a business model for higher education. Importantly, it also abolishes ‘university asylum' - the law that designates university grounds as off-limits to police - which has played an important practical role in social struggles since its institution after the fall of the junta in 1974. When students responded with occupations around the country after the start of the academic year, it already seemed too late. The peak of their engagement was in September, suggesting that the long occupations of 2006-7 may not be repeated this time.


Autumn also brought the rapid and ruthless slashing of indirect and direct wages in both the public and private sectors via cuts and emergency taxes. In response, auto-reduction practices spread more widely, having started a year ago in a more limited scale with the ‘I Don't Pay' movement under the auspices of the leftist ANTARSYA party. The Public Electricity Company union refused to implement new taxation via electricity bills, bills were collectively burned outside tax offices, and there was a widespread tacit agreement that certain taxes would simply not be paid. The discussion around these actions again had, by its nature, an interclass, citizenist and legalistic character. Nevertheless, the fact that these were less symbolic political acts forming a response to governmental policy, but primarily acts of survival, as a large section of the population is unable to pay these taxes, links these campaigns directly to the crisis of the wage relation. With little room left for workers' struggles to develop around wage demands, these practices have temporarily claimed back a tiny fraction of the indirect wage, displacing the conflict outside the workplace.


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Image: Anonymous, ‘We Will Eat the Bourgeoisie’, slogan written outside the luxurious hotel Grande Bretagne in Parliament Square, Athens, 2009.


The sense of despair in relation to winning demands, however, does not signal the end of wage struggles. When the government announced the impending abolition of the minimum wage and of collective contracts, as well as mass layoffs in the public sector, two general strikes were announced by the major unions in October. That provided a basis for rank and file organising in workplaces to push for participation in the strike and for occupations in the public sector, especially in cases where they were met with resistance by management or by sectoral unions. Interestingly, although the entire public sector ceased to function for over a week due to mass occupations, these actions received public support, expressed in episodes such as residents blocking the way of strike-breaking private refuse collection vehicles - so much so that their drivers eventually went on strike themselves. The massive scale of the general strike of 19-20 October, and the emergence of rank and file organising at this juncture, does suggest that the struggle around the wage is what is driving social mobilisation in Greece right now. The staying power of rank and file organising, in spite of the general strike's inability to achieve its aims, is something to pay attention to. If their struggle escalates to the point that it challenges the official unions, but strikes and occupations are still not enough to win the fight to keep wages at a liveable level, what type of practices might workers resort to?


The impasse of demands, the lack of prospects for even basic subsistence in a future of poverty level wages and high unemployment, combined with extreme police repression, does seem to coincide with increasingly forceful clashes at demonstrations, both against the police and between demonstrators. The multiplication of direct attacks on the police, private and public property, as well as attacks on exchange and the obstacles to reproduction through looting - the latter fairly limited compared to recent riots in the UK and to those in Greece of December 2008 - signal that for many there are now zero stakes in social relations. Sustained attacks on the police are not ‘missing the target'. They are in essence attacks on the enforced reproduction of social relations as they are imposed today. The fact that riots take place during national strikes suggests that they are a direct reaction to the contradiction faced by struggles around the wage. They occur at the level of reproduction because this is exactly where the tendency of the wage to disappear is experienced.


The serious clashes during the general strike of 20 October in front of the parliament, between the Communist Party union cadre (PAME) and demonstrators who had clashed with police the day before, are indicative of this tendency. On the second day of the most dynamic national strike and the most intense and populous demonstration in decades, the Communist Party played its traditional role of striving to lead workers' struggles while keeping them under control by encircling and protecting the parliament and its Mps, effectively replacing the role of the police. Other demonstrators attacked them as if they were the police, sparking a fierce street battle. This was not just a conflict about political tactics, however. As the Agents of Chaos have pointed out in a recent text, this was not a conflict between anarchism and Stalinist communism, as is often claimed.5 It is a fundamental conflict between proletarian practices produced by the current cycle of struggles: on one side, the persistent attempt to affirm productive labour, to win demands within the capital relation, even the dream of ‘taking over the means of production'; on the other, destructive practices without demands by living labour that can no longer affirm itself within the capital relation - a relation that no longer provides for its reproduction as labour power.


The current struggles in Greece contain within them the central contradiction continually produced in our time: the working class experiencing the limits of its struggle, which are its own intrinsic condition as living labour and the relations that constitute it as such. These struggles continue, despite the risk of a self-destructive outcome, namely a (disorderly) default. The threat of the destruction of capital, and with that the unavailability of work, does not stop struggles. This suggests that they could escalate in ways that break with the ‘reasonable options' presented to them. Meanwhile, attacks on structures of social control, property and exchange, riots without demands and the inevitable conflicts they generate inside the struggles themselves, seem likely to intensify. It is the multiplication of these sorts of conflict, and not the triumph of productive labour and working class unity, that will shape the struggles to come.


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Demetra Kotouza <demetra AT> is a contributing editor to Mute




This text was written while being at a physical distance from events. Many thanks to friends involved in the journal Blaumachen for providing invaluable information, ideas and feedback.





1 ‘Autoreduction' is the act by which consumers, in the area of consumption, and workers, in the area of production, take it upon themselves to reduce the price of public services, housing, electricity, taxation; or in the factory, the rate of productivity.


2 The Mid-Term Programme outlined cuts to services, wages, pensions and (what little remained of) benefits, and public sector layoffs, along with a long list of privatisations - the first step towards the total sell-off demanded by the ‘Troika'. An interesting ‘innovation' was that workers and pensioners were to be charged an extra ‘solidarity tax' to pay for the one-year benefit given to the increasing numbers of the unemployed. Furthermore, it forecast that even after all these measures had been taken, by 2015 Greece's external debt would only have been reduced by a tiny fraction.


3 ‘The Troika' is a slang term for the three institutions which have the most power over Greece's financial future - or at least that future as it is defined within the European Union: the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB).


4 The emergence of autonomous nationalism and of frequent violent attacks on migrants by mostly working class far-right groups again occurs in the context of the fragmentation of the working class. Migrants are seen as the reason for the failure of wage demands, and in an attempt to regain bargaining power, a section of the working class that has lost hope in the demand for ‘jobs for Greek workers', takes direct action to terrorise them out of the country, disregarding the laws of a sold-out government that is perceived as ‘betraying' its citizens. However, the inability to unify as ‘Greek workers' means that this tendency is very marginal despite its growth.

5 Agents of Chaos, '????? ?????, ??????? ?? ?????...' ['Without You, Not a Single Cog Turns...'], October 2011,


Style Without Subversion

November 29, 2011 - 11:48am
By Gail Day

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The V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition acted like an industrial trawler, disembedding three decades of cultural artefacts from their diverse ecologies. The result, writes Gail Day, is a deeply conservative reading of this tumultuous epoch


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Most people seem to like the exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. Such, at least, was the evidence on the night I attended (and from much of the general chit-chat one picks up, and from the cheery presence of promotional leaflets spotted in fashion outlets). Admittedly, I went to the museum on a Friday late night opening when, in the V&A’s foyer, a sound system was pumping out music, cocktails were flowing and families were learning a technique for darning holes in jumpers. It was also the night when Charles Jencks was talking to Rem Koolhaas; both have work displayed in the show, so I imagine they must have been in good spirits – and the crowd spilling out from the discussion into the Postmodernism exhibition was generally enjoying the fun of it all.


Image: Buzzcocks, Orgasm Addict, 1977


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As may be inferred from my tone, I didn’t. Sure, I found plenty of pleasures to revel in – vicarious and otherwise. Tapping toes to Talking Heads, snippets from Blade Runner and The Last of England, issues of The Face, a Buzzcock’s single, and reminders of the Hacienda: it was a retro fairground of an earlier life. Lots of stuff I’d thrown away. My own petty possessions and experiences of the ’80s were raised to a second power under the museological gaze named ‘postmodernism’. At least I had enjoyed using the commodities back then; with their fetish nature transmuted, they looked back at me from their cultic vitrines and display monitors. Interestingly, the temporal economies invoked by the items of popular culture (the mags, the films, the sounds, the looks) didn’t accord with those of the furniture and household objects. If coming across the former felt like rummaging at a jumble sale, the later was more like window shopping in one of today’s emporia, with their Alessi franchises, devoted to designer products. Not all commodities are equal. Of course, for anyone of my generation, the show inevitably had a melancholic underpinning. But, irrespective of when we were born, Postmodernism treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif. Jencks’ words, stencilled on the wall, set the scene from the outset: if modernism is dead, ‘we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse’. Later, Derek Jarman’s voice-over was used to echo the sense of historical caesura and closure: ‘Even our protests were hopeless’.



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The V&A’s institutional form shaped the exhibition in two ways. First, the architectural spaces used for the museum’s temporary displays forced a tripartite division and, secondly, the focus of the museum’s collections gave direction to the type of materials used to typify postmodernism (jewellery, furniture, etc.) The first section largely focused on architecture, drawing on the texts written by architects and theorists who were considered to have initiated the visual and material dimensions of postmodernism: Jencks, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and James Wines. (This was not the place to worry ourselves much over Jean-François Lyotard’s, Frederic Jameson’s or David Harvey’s accounts, never mind the arguments of postmodernism’s critics.) The second part was largely geared towards a range of design media (furniture, graphic design, etc.). The last section attempted to situate postmodernism in relation to money and the commodity and included, inter alia, jewellery, craft and examples of a peculiar high-end phenomenon where architects would be commissioned to conceive a ‘piazza’ of coffee accoutrements. This final section abandoned the lightbox signboards of the two earlier rooms (red and green respectively) in favour of an abundant use of shiny-black acrylic sheets. The coloured glow associated with commercial promotions in streets and subways was displaced by reflections that conveyed the air of an aspiring celebrity funeral. The exhibition’s parts narrated, loosely, the three-fold time frames of postmodernism: its coming to ascendancy, its high period and its collapse (‘under the weight of its own success’). As a heuristic device, this seemed remarkably conventional. Methodologically, it was something of a dinosaur, especially with the treatment of the final phase as one of internalised self-regard (remember those accounts of the renaissance giving way to mannerism, the baroque to the rococo… or, for that matter, modernism to the international movement?) This conceptual conservatism also emerged via the show’s subtitle. Accompanied by its subset of associated binaries (theatrical/theoretical, commercial/avant-garde, etc.), ‘Style and Subversion’ was posed as the overarching ‘ambiguity’ – the all round refusal to be categorised – that was (allegedly) postmodernism. Postmodernism, we were told, was ‘a new self-awareness about style itself’. But it transpired that Postmodernism, the show, reduced ‘style’ to an unreflexive, art historical category which was used to pin down a period of 20 years: strange to see because, if the debates over postmodernity did one thing, it was to distinguish ‘ism’ from ‘ity’.



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One would be hard pressed to know from Postmodernism that the period under scrutiny saw a massive assault on working class communities and labour organisations; significant battles over racist and sexist discrimination, gay rights, abortion rights and anti-Nazi activism; the deregulation of the financial markets; the beginnings (in the UK) of the attacks on free university education and the dismantling of the postwar welfarist settlement. The categorial blanketing performed by ‘postmodernism’ evaded the specificity of the objects qua material objects, let alone the objects as socially situated entities or actors. To reprise the earlier conjuncture: Jarman’s angry lament, eight years into Thatcher’s term, was fundamentally at odds with Jencks’ suave ease and intellectual game playing. It is critically lazy to dub such differences ‘ambivalence’. Postmodernism-as-idea effectively bludgeoned into subjection every object presented. There was insufficient recognition that while some claimed to be postmodern, self-identifying as its promoters, others only became identified as ‘postmodern’ by dint of being turned into the tokens within the arguments of the time. For a good number of the exhibits, the label ‘postmodern’ seemed to be being freshly applied; just being a product of the ’70s or ’80s seemed sufficient. That surrealist inspired Buzzcock’s cover? It was news to find that the youth of the ’80s ‘experienced postmodernism for the first time through issues of The Face and i-D’. No! The curators’ opening statement ducked the point: ‘This era defies definition, but it is a perfect subject for an exhibition.’ Which era doesn’t ‘defy definition’? Clearly, we were meant to answer ‘modernism’. Empty truisms of this sort peppered the show – along with their associated straw target – while reheated paraphrases (‘we are all postmodern now’) fell short of carrying off pastiche.



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Bricolage was a running theme. Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn’s Big Money is Moving In, from the project ‘The Changing Picture of Docklands’ an intervention in the radical (‘left-modernist’) montage tradition – found itself reduced to an example of ‘postmodern technique’. Working with tenants’ action groups and trade unions to oppose the gentrification and corporatisation of their neighbourhoods, the artists developed a series of large publicly sited photo-murals. Shorn of its resistive voice, its activist identification and its commitment to collective agency, the work just served to underscore the closing section’s ‘money’ theme. Earlier we were told that, while modernism created unified wholes, postmodern montage was variable, apparently ‘embracing the full diversity of the world’. The ‘modernists’ named as exemplary of the ‘synthesised’ mode were Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters. Had the curators actually looked at their work? Along the same lines, we learnt that modernism equates to the grid: a bizarre statement to make when you include, as an example of postmodernism, a celebratory riff on Manhattan’s street pattern (Koolhaas’ Delirious New York). The force of the ‘postmodern’ chopper came down, conceptually cutting history into trite isms and categories. But – despite what the literature promoting postmodernism claimed – the history of montage practices does not divide itself up into an era of unities and an era of fragments; and neither does the 20th century.


Image: Charles Jencks, Garagia Rotunda, Truro, MA 1976-77


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Nevertheless, it was surprisingly interesting to encounter key tokens from its discourse. Despite serving as postmodernism’s ideological juggernaut (or perhaps because of it), the architectural material proved especially fascinating. Even the reconstruction of Jencks’ Garagia Rotunda, his automotive ‘garden folly’ dressed up in stagey classicist motifs – though it did strike me all the more powerfully as boringly naff – provided a welcome opportunity to see that confirmed ‘in the flesh’. Hans Hollein’s line-up of Doric columns (his Strada Novissima, originally made for Venice’s Architecture Bienniale in 1980) left me similarly unmoved, if still glad to have registered it as a material presence. The clever ironies now all look so earnest, overweening and portentous. The claim of postmodern architecture was to recover ‘meaning’ by using historical references, but this populist move just revealed the vacuity of the gesture – its emptiness both as gesture and as historical intervention. As lived experience, so-called postmodern space is scarcely different from that of the buildings and squares it sought to trump. However, the discourse on postmodernity advanced itself not so much through its constructed realities as it did through architectural photography. Images in glossy journals like AD endowed the examples of ‘postmodern architecture’ with optical allure and faux clarity. The exhibition didn’t give us these, but quite a few architectural models, which captivated in another way, returning us to the moment of imaginative projection; to the particular totalising perspective of corporate clients and to the encounter in which the architect attempted to convince them that one grand vision could coincide with another.


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Nils-Ole Lund’s The Future of Architecture (1979) was similarly intriguing. Its collagistic fracture was invariably ironed out by the mass circulation of the printed page and then hyped up further and projected by its circulation as a lecture slide. Both reproductions rendered the work into something that looked like a large photorealist painting, albeit one with some uncanny transitions on its synthesised surface. Seeing the original montage, I was struck by just how small it was, but I was mostly caught up wondering how it had even become a coin of postmodern discourse. It’s so clearly possible to have it read otherwise. Its figure of ‘modernity in ruins’ could just as easily be interpreted as picturesque, romantic or surrealist; comprehended not as modernism’s ‘death’, but as modernity itself. (These days, we might note, the figure is much favoured by polemicising pro-modernists.)


Image: Nils-ole Lund, The Future of Architecture, 1979


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I came to realise that the cadaver being scavenged was not modernism’s but that of postmodernism itself. Perhaps Jencks’ opening statement approached the status of a larger curatorial conceit? In one of the show’s central rites of passage – its ‘Times Square’ – the exhibition design echoed the mediatised city of Blade Runner; we were taken into that night time world of screens and monitors conjured up so memorably by Ridley Scott, but here it was David Byrne and Annie Lennox who were the ghastly visages bearing down and cynically mocking us. We had only just passed the Blade Runner clips which, in turn, had been placed under remit of ‘Apocalypse then’; all suitably ‘intertextual’. It would be nice to acknowledge such thematic introjection as a piece of curatorial élan; a meta-joke where an object of study became the exhibition’s conceptual motor. Sadly, the pattern of auto-ingestion was too weakly drawn. Instead, what prevailed was a banal subject/object collapse that seemed not to be of anyone’s choosing or staging, but rather the result of a simple failure to maintain critical distinctions or to exercise historical caution.

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Certainly, the role of publications (Domus or i-D, etc.) as disseminators of styles was grasped. But there was also too much uncritical acceptance of what had been read in the canonical books promoting postmodernism. Yet the making of ‘postmodernism’ – via this avalanche of secondary literature – is a history in its own right. It was a publishing category tied to the sale of pedagogic shorthands. (In the ’90s, it used to be said – apocryphally, no doubt – that if you wanted to get your book out, you needed the P-word in the title.) There were allusions to The Language of Postmodern Architecture and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (primary texts, we might say, and which played their part in the construction of the discourse), but the exhibition’s perspective seemed to have been essentially directed by the mass of generic style surveys produced to support the art and design school curriculum. These synthetic works were reliant on weakly conceived Wölfflin-type schematisations, derived from Venturi and Jencks and shored up by snippets from the heavyweights like Lyotard or Jameson. Studying 3D design? Well here’s how the story goes: Sottsass, Memphis, Studio Alchymia, etc. – irony, pastiche, bricolage, appropriation, quotation. Each segment of the university and polytechnic divisions of labour had its corresponding volumes to enforce and shore up these schema. For all the talk in Postmodernism of deconstruction and reconstruction, of irony and self-awareness, there was little sign that the archive itself had been recognised as form, as institution, as construct or as discursive production – let alone historicised or subjected to critical analysis. The annals were read straight, as direct access to an authentic voice, and then played back.


Image:  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the Las Vegas Desert with the Strip in the Background, 1966


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And yet even the archive was strangely limited. What, for example, happened to the central discussion of the ’80s: the distinction between conservative historicist and critical poststructuralist versions of postmodernism? It is rendered by the curators as postmodernism’s ‘theatrical’ and ‘theoretical’ characteristics, its exciting ‘ambivalence’. Yet, at the time, the differences were articulated as sharp political contestations. From Hal Foster’s essays in the ’80s to the architectural debates of the Revisions group in New York, this sense of embattled opposition was expressed explicitly and repeatedly. We can now recognise these as responses to the Reagan administration’s aggressive imposition of neoliberalism. I happen to think there were problems with these left leaning challenges to postmodernism’s mainstream, but they were certainly not just one inflection within the postmodern ambiguity.


Less visible, but implicit in the dates and places – and sometimes in the objects themselves – other stories seemed to lurk; further paths suggested themselves for historical investigation. One friend speculated on the possibility that the Milanese design objects – mostly dated immediately after the repression of the Italian left (the so-called ‘years of lead’) – were symptoms of a ‘Pastel Thermidor’, Italy’s counter-revolution exported and niche marketed. It is tempting to see the pots and kettles as direct symptoms of a new political domination – especially when, like me, you actively don’t like them, and especially when you know whose needs they were designed for – but I suspect their place may well be more complex and contradictory. One would want to consider these human products not merely as semiotic representatives of some idiot ‘ism’, but as material agents within a changing field of social and economic relations. Postmodernism’s veneer of historical analysis relied, however, on media coined buzzwords and soundbites: ‘yuppy’, ‘designer decade’, ‘boom’. History deserves better treatment; so do (at least some of) the objects. The commodities still have their stories to tell. Give the fetishes their due.

Gail Day <G.A.Day AT> teaches in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She is author of Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory (Columbia University Press, 2010), shortlisted for the 2011 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize




Gorky Park

November 24, 2011 - 5:06am
By jabber

“Park Gorkogo” is a typical name of an amusement park in most of the large cities of the former Soviet Republics. “Gorky Park” is also a name of the popular Russian rock-band, with disgusting ballads in English – one of the failed export projects of the late Soviet pop-industry. Tailed rock-singers in their late 30s perform on stage glamorous macho masculinity with slight Russian accent.

When I was a child I often visited the one in the centre of Minsk. Once sticky candy floss, chocolate ice-cream and cold lemonade were sold there, now pop-corn and coca-cola replaced them, offering a fast sugar shot.

At the weekends citizens with their children come there to take rest after the working week. They spend time together, sitting on the benches, playing chess, drinking beer, or cycling. During the week young people meet up there usually in the evenings – from nasty looking punks, hip-hoppers and goths to “gopniki”, the lumpen youth. The park is used also for celebrations during the official holidays, when huge stages are built up there. They host the most barking pop-music ever, mixed with staged folk dances.

The park, where sparkling red squirrels besiege the old chestnut trees, is named after the idol of socialist realism Maxim Gorky (Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov). The monument to the writer and poet in his young years is erected in the park; however he had hardly any relations with Minsk city and Belarus.

It is difficult to explain, why he became so acknowledged in the Soviet Union. For me his writings were quite primitive and unimaginative, he used words rather as a hatchet man, than a writer. Probably, his proletarian origin and Stalin’s personal fancy mattered more than his actual talent. I particularly hated to read him at school - his books were a part of the obligatory curriculum. I always tried to keep a straight face while reading his texts in the “proletarian humanism” manner:

„The fat, foolish penguin hides, timid and craven,
In nooks of the cliffs, where it finds a safe home;
Alone the proud storm-finch soars freely and boldly
Above the rough ocean, all hoary with foam”.
(“The Song of the Storm-Finch”)

What irritated me even more is that at the literature classes we had to find the deep meaning and symbolical background of his evidently unintellectual scribble.

Supposedly while he was self-conscious of being weak as an author, he meddled into politics, pleasing Stalin and showing obedience to the authorities. He became a mouthpiece for Stalin’s arbitraries.

I was born in quite “successful” Soviet family; both of my grandfathers were members of the Communist party – as any “respected” man was. This allowed them an access to such resources, as comfortable accommodation, car, TV, prestigious jobs, possibility to travel, extra medical services and good education for their children. It is a myth that the Soviet Union was built on equality. At least the last years of its existence, which I remember myself, were marked with food and clothing deficit, everyday hardships, and the society was consumed with envy.
My relatives nevertheless belonged to Soviet establishment. The loyalty to the authorities, which was their strategy to achieve comfortable existence, played a cruel trick on them – starting as a survival conformism, it developed into the life philosophy, and they accepted the values of the propagated “communist morals” as their own. But each family has its own skeletons in the closet – one of my mother’s uncles was in Soviet forced labor camp, and my father’s mother was from the family of “kulaki”. These facts were always concealed, there were no solidarity with the uncle, who was very poor, thin as a rail and sick after many years of imprisonment in the camp. Despite the rehabilitation, he was never back to social life. His pain and exclusion were the price which my mother’s family had to pay for their own comfort.

Almost each Soviet family had a member who endured repression. While the camps where a taboo topic for the collective subconscious, at the same time the popular culture absorbed the lager culture, with its specific folklore and typical modes of behavior. If we consider the number of people with camp background in the Soviet Union, it becomes clear, why criminal culture became a dominating source for Soviet pop-culture. The attitude to gays and lesbians as to the stigmatized and subservient was an intrinsic part of this camp culture. For instance, the homophobic attitude is fixed in such common insults, as “pidor” / “pider” (“faggot”) or special camp slang “petuh” (“cock”) and “kozjol” (“billy goat”), originating from the criminal slang, and as well in the stereotype of the same-sex intercourse as an act of rape. It was associated mostly with “ opuschennye” (“degraded”, “downcast”, a special slang term for one who has been beaten up, raped and urinated upon). The politics of criminalization of gay people practically during the whole history of the Soviet Union, from 1934 till 1993 resulted into this subconscious interconnection of being gay or lesbian with criminal activity or with criminal background. And this interconnection is not deconstructed up to the present time.

Just after the revolution, at least during the first decade of Soviet rule one could speak about a great improvement in the sexual emancipation and gender equality. For instance, in the Criminal Codes of the RSFSR of 1922 and 1926 there were no articles concerning the criminal responsibility for being gay, since Soviet legislation was unaware of the “crimes against morality”. Hence, this decriminalization was influenced by hormonal hypothesis of an etiology of homosexuality, which appeared after the Steinach-Lichtenstern experiment in 1918. Officially in the RSFSR the approach of medicalization of gay people and hormonal correction of their “anomaly” was chosen. For instance, in 1928 an attempt to pattern the Steinach-Lichtenstern experiment was undertaken by doctor Kirov in Kharkov University at the Faculty of Psychiatry. He tried to reverse sexual orientation of Efrosiniya B. implanting animal ovary sections beneath her right breast. When this sadistic experiment failed, Kirov blamed the false data in the Western literature on this question.

D. Healey in his article “The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born” describes a raid on a „pederastic party” in Petrograd on 15 January 1921, resulted in the arrest of 98 sailors, soldiers, and civilians, many of them dressed in drag. They had tagged a mock wedding ceremony and celebrated the occasion with waltzes and minuets. Other guests wore “Spanish costumes” or “white wigs”, and there was a “flying post” for sending messages; one lucky sailor got notes saying “I fancy you” and “I’d like to get to know you”.

According to Healey, the Soviet Union in the 1920s was the most significant example of decriminalization of the male same-sex relations since the French Revolution, while Britain and Weimar Germany continued to prosecute gays and lesbians. Soviet health authorities even courted the left-leaning sex reform movement headed by Berlin sexologist and gay rights campaigner M. Hirschfeld. Biologists and doctors began to investigate homosexuality as a scientific and medical phenomenon, often with loyalty. But M. Hirschfeld himself, after his encounters with Soviet doctors who had the repressive view on gay people, changed his enthusiasm for the Soviet Revolution, which was too puritan for him. With Stalin’s rise to power after 1924 the situation changed dramatically.

In September 1933 the first raid on the suspected of being gay persons was carried out, and 130 people were arrested. Genrikh Yagoda, the vice-chairman of the OGPU (the State Political Directorate) wrote a report to Stalin, informing him that the “dangerous groups of gays” in Moscow and Leningrad were exposed. These groups quasi were building a gay network with a plan to turn later the salons and brothels into the spy cells.

With Stalin’s approval the OGPU prepared the project of the anti-gay law. On 13 December 1933 Genrikh Yagoda send another one paranoid brief to Stalin, blaming gay communities for counter-revolution and complaining about the absence of the appropriate criminal laws to persecute the “pederasts” who supposedly recruit and pervert the healthy youth and the Red Army and the Red Navy men. This conspirological delirium turned shortly afterwards into the reality for the gay people in the USSR - by the end of December 1933 the anal and genital contact between consenting males was considered a crime. It was made in order to destroy the gay subculture and allegedly followed the logic of the anti-prostitution initiatives in the crisis years of the early 1930s.

This hype about the international networks of gays was designed to inseminate the mass consciousness with the idea of connection of being gay with the counter-revolution. The repressions against the “suspicious” Others, including gays, foreigners, former Czarist diplomats, White Guards, Jews, intellectuals, and dissidents were launched.

On 7 March 1934 the resolution “On the Criminal Responsibility for the Sodomy” was pushed ahead at the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. It was not enough for the Soviet state to control the mind of the Soviet people; their anuses had to be controlled as well. The criminal law determined much harder sentence for the sexual intercourse between two males, than in the pre-revolutionary Russia. On 1 April 1934, Article § 154 (later § 121) had been fixed in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR – according to this law, prepared by the butchers from the OGPU, the voluntary gay sex was persecuted as a crime in all Soviet republics. The notorious Article §121 determined punishment for the “sodomy” with the term of imprisonment up to 5 years, and in case of violence, threat or in case of the minor or with the use of the dependant position of the victim, up to 8 years. Lesbians and bisexual women were not criminally persecuted according to this law.

D. Healey in his article “Unruly Identities: Soviet Psychiatry Confronts the “Female Homosexual” of the 1920s.” mentions several lesbians who registered their marriage and two women “transvestites” who served as Red Army commanders in men’s clothing. Being lesbian was treated in the Soviet Union in general more liberally. Just after the revolution, when the identity of the socialist woman was just in the process of formation, and women moved into education and paid labour, the lesbians where socially accepted. Masculine women were seen then as competent, powerful and in general loyal to the values of the Revolution. However already in the 1930s within the introduced politics to increase the birth rate in the Soviet state lesbian was seen as disobedient. When the anti-gay campaign was launched, the massive criminalization and psychiatrization of lesbians and transgenders started. Hospitalization or isolation in prison clinics was a probable destiny for many of these women who were considered “psychotic” because of their rejection of the heterosexist maternal role.

Especially male femininity was imagined as foreign, primitive, and bourgeois. “Petuh” (“faggot”) is the most vicious insult in the Russian language, undermining the strength of the dominant stereotype of the patriarchal heterosexual man. Besides it bears the connotation of sexual violence and abuse in Soviet prisons, camps and army circles.

Soviet authorities displayed their striving to control the human body and sexuality, following very regressive biopolitics – with prohibition of abortion in 1936, as well as toughened divorce. Since the Soviet state needed new working hands, these were the measures to increase the birth-rate. The family was proclaimed to be a basis of the socialist collective, and, in case of the criminal punishment for the public enemies, the responsibility for their guilt was shifted off on their family members as well.

The article §121 was used not only to punish gays, but also to criminalize dissidents, who were sent to Syberia. Secret lists and profiles containing the information about allegedly gays were forged by the militia. The Soviet state always kept the gays in the awe of arrest: most of them for sure were aware of the arrests of their friends, lovers and acquaintances, and that made them obedient and willing to collaborate with the regime. The disobedient were proclaimed dissidents and sent to Soviet forced labor camps.

In the official press the public campaign against the gays was launched – and Stalin’s favorite writer, Maxim Gorky himself contributed to the justification of the repressions. On 23 May 1934 he wrote in the leading article published on the front pages of the newspapers “Prawda” and “Izwestija”: “Not the dozens, but the hundreds of facts testify the devastating and perverse influence of fascism upon the youth in Europe. It is disgusting to list these facts, and my memory refuses to be loaded with the filth, which is more and more industriously and abundantly produced by the bourgeoisie. I will mention only, that in the country, where the proletariat operates with courage and success, gay people, perverting the youth, are recognized as criminals and have to be punished, and in the cultural land of the great philosophers, scientists, musicians it operates freely and unpunished. A sarcastic proverb appeared: Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear”. This appeal was directed against Hitler’s fellow Ernst Röhm, which was shortly afterwards killed by the führer’s order.

It is not clear, if Gorky made it on his own intent, or by order of the above-standing authorities. Prominent Russian gay writer Slava Mogutin in his essay “Gay in the GULAG” reminds one of the popular rumors that the adopted son of Maxim Gorky was seduced by a gay, and the leading proletarian writer took his revenge in such a mean way. The choice for the intellectuals in the Soviet Union was limited: the authorities demanded from them only hymns to Stalin, those, who were critical, paid with their lives. Destruction of ethics and its replacement with ideological dogma happened. When being gay was proclaimed a “crime against communist morals” - it was obviously nonsense, while the unmoral deed could not be persecuted according to the criminal law. This criminal article was not supported with any “valuable” scientific basis. Anyway the lawyers and the doctors in the USSR supported the triumph of “communist morals”, which described being gay as a “foreign disease” and the sign of the “moral decay of the Western bourgeoisie”. This conception justified, however, the massive sexual crimes of the Soviet regime, which took place in every camp and prison without exception.

This aggressive Anti-Western tendency of the “communist morals” could be explained by the analysis of the logics of transitivism by J. Lacan in his text “The Other and Psychosis”. “One child who has beaten another can say - The other beat me. It's not that he is lying - he is the other, literally”.

In 1936 the Commissar for Justice, Nikolai Krylenko, declared being gay a political crime against the Soviet state and the proletariat. As S. Mogutin writes, “The fate of homosexuals in Soviet prisons and camps is unprecedented in the scope of its tragedy and brutality”. Over 25 thousand people were persecuted and end up in the forced labor camps in accordance with this article, which was in power for almost 60 years. It was cancelled in 1993.

All in all in the Soviet Union two state repressive measures against the gay people existed – the first one is the implementation of the criminal article persecuting gays for 5 years, and the second one is the abuse of psychiatry, which allowed, for instance, to psychiatrize lesbians and transgenders. When the parents, teachers or colleagues informed the authorities about the lesbian relationship, the psychiatrist usually manipulated with the diagnosis, which sounded as “personality disorder”. Young women (especially in the age of 15-19) were put into psychiatric clinics for the term of 3 months. During this time they received psychopharmacological medication, which influenced their consciousness and mental development. Afterwards they had to be registered by the local psychologist as psychically ill. This registration gave up for lost their future carrier and the driving license.

Most of the sodomy trials of the 1930s took place behind the closed doors. The militia intervention into the intimate life of individuals was directed towards the destruction of the privacy, which is peculiar to any authoritarian society. Such notions, as “private sphere”, “autonomy” and “self-determination” are still alien to the dominant cultural vocabulary in the post-Soviet countries. This makes the life of an individual extremely difficult there. The dominating stereotypes and prejudgments concerning the “successful” and “normal” lifestyle serve as blackmail in order to compel persons to conform and to be obedient. The collectivist lifestyle, paternalism and heteronormativity which were propagated during the Soviet regime, destroyed the ability of the citizens to make responsible decisions and take the initiative themselves. The intimate sphere and the interpersonal relations’ were also touched upon by the omnipresent control of the jailors of the “communist morals”.

It was very difficult in Soviet times to create intimacy, while the living conditions where so, that one always had to share one’s private sphere with somebody else in so-called “kommunalnyh kvartirah”, where from 4 up to 16 and more people lived together in one accommodation, especially in the big industrial cities. It was impossible to stay on your own there, which impeded the formation of the individuality and independent thinking. Violence, insanitariness and crime were there as a matter of course. Another one variant of cohabitation, a legacy of the village culture, meant living together with parents even in the adulthood, which often created intergenerational conflicts. Such power relations were difficult even for the straight people, not mentioning gays and lesbians, who very rarely lived in partnership. Most of them leaded the double-life, were officially married and even had children in their heterosexual marriages. This means hypocrisy and thousands of ruined, unhappy and unbearable lives.

Extreme density of prison and camp life was a continuation of this transparent communal living, where everyone was always in somebody’s else presence and control, often unintentionally. Even the cattle, if they live in poor conditions and too close to each other, are at the risk of getting foot-and-mouth disease. Soviet authorities were treating the citizens worth than the cattle in the dense stalls of communal apartments, public transport and factory world. This produced frictions, conflicts, paranoia and hatred between the people. The scale of violence and repressions against any imaginary public enemies – “spies”, “parasites”, “perverts”, “prostitutes”, “dissidents”, “conspirators”, “thieves”, “collaborators”, “pederasts” and “dykes” was inconceivable. And very often the arrest and further interrogation and imprisonment were the result of a denunciation, faked by neighbors from the same communal apartment or, worse, the relatives as an act of revenge or realization of the plan to improve their living conditions, occupying the accommodation of the person, who was sent to the camp or a nuthouse.

After Stalin, during the years of so-called “liberalization”, another one, more “mild” way remained to deal with the “public enemies” and “dissidents” - the compulsory psychiatrisation. Soviet psychiatry, based on the behavioral Pavlov’s doctrine, was harsh. The electro-shock therapy and the cheapest psychopharmacy were used there.

Post-Soviet society has not coped yet with its past that vastly embarrasses the rights of the LGBT people there. It still leans to the image of the strong leader, the father of the people, the commander – this authoritarian tendency is cherished by the ruling class. It could explain also the long-lasting political course in Russia, where the ex-officials of the secret service gained the rule. Or the flashbacks of the Stalinist propaganda constituting the symbols of the ideological space in Belarus. Or the frightening growth of the anti-Semitism and nationalism in Ukraine and Lithuania. The Soviet Imperia was built upon the symbols of the military power, patriarchal tradition and atmosphere of the general mistrust and denunciation. This ideologems still hinder the development of democratic societies in the post-Soviet counties.

Most of my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends from Belarus with great commitment struggle against the successors of the Stalin rule who are still in power there.

List of cited books and articles:

Anna Bjutikofer. Gomoseksualizm v Sovetskom Sojuze i v segodnjashnej Rossii. Iz zhurnale "die" (di), No 8, Autumn 1998 g., pp. 6-8.

Healey D. Unruly Identities: Soviet Psychiatry Confronts the «Female Homosexual» of the 1920s. (in Gender in Russain History and Culture, ed. by Linda Edmondson, Studies in Russian and East European Histoty and Society Series, University of Birmingham, 2001). Pp. 116 – 138

Healey D. The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born (in Russian Masculinities in History and Culture, ed. by Barbara Evans Clements, Rebecca Friedman and Dan Healey, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 NY). Pp. 152 – 171

Kon I. S. Sociologicheskie zametki o gomofobii i sposobah ee preodolenija

"Krasnym" po "golubomu". - Sovetskaja vlast' protiv gomoseksualistov

Lacan J. The Other and Psychosis (in The Psychoses. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller. Book 3, 1955 – 1956. Translated with notes by Russell Grigg. London, Routledge 1993). pp. 29 - 43

Mogutin S. Gay in the GULAG. Translated from Russian by Irena Maryniak. (in: Index on Censorship (London), Volume 24, No.1/1995)

Publikuju po pros'be Valerija Bondarenko...

FTH: The Savage and Beyond

November 22, 2011 - 6:21am
By Howard Slater

Howard Slater grasps at the August riots as the appearance of an ‘unrecognisable demos' which challenges the very ability of capitalist democracy to include or contain the language and acts of its subjects



One carries in public affairs the spirit of the sales counter

- Pierre Leroux (1834)


The consonants F, T and H, in that order, form a trilateral root meaning fissure, chink, opening...

- Jean Genet (1986)



1. One thing can be said with a modicum of certainty: the recent riots of August 2011 were political. What can be meant by political in this instance? Well, maybe something as straightforward as taking action in the street, getting beyond the idea of a ‘neutrality of living'.1 It's a form of such neutrality that informs those accusations that have it that the riots were ‘apolitical'. These accusations more or less come from a political state (and those professionally invested in it) that proffers an idea of politics as the maintenance of a ‘neutrality of living', as the embodiment of rational common sense, as the legislative thrust of a protective equilibrium. If, as many of the riots' detractors maintain, these actions that overspilled the boundaries of ‘civil society' were not political then we have further reason to surmise that politics for such as these is a technical managerial affair: the management of libidinal and economic energies into a steady state; the making legible of all action into recognisable ‘civil' forms.


2. The next step, then, was to brand the rioters as criminals and to see in the rioting a mass outbreak of criminal opportunism. Such labelling brings the ‘overspill' into an understandable civil remit and makes exemplary retaliation possible. Anything else is unconscionable for those who sit comfortably upon us. So, to link the ongoing austerity cuts to the riots as some liberal politicians did, is seen as an outrage, as a breach to the morally consensual re-establishment of ‘civil peace'. This civil peace is however, informed by capitalism's ‘naturalisation' within the state as it creeps beyond a simple integration - that could be echoed by a discipline going by the name of ‘political economy' - towards a takeover of the state political realm - that could ring out in such a phrase as ‘corporate governance'. It is maybe possible, then, to consider the increasing role of the state as an indicator of a corporate takeover - ongoing welfare cuts, bank bailouts, effective corporate lobbying etc. - that makes politicians ‘instinct' with capital and dictated to, in the moments immediately preceding the riots, by the fear of ‘sovereign debt'. Thus they are dictated to by a form of corporate para-political power that wields abstract measurements of a state's wealth and economic standing over and above even these states' belief in a mythic ‘democracy'.


3. The moral outrage of the governing political administrators at this disturbance of ‘civil peace' is, then, illustrative of a kind of ‘political theology'. Their god is now capital and those blasphemers against value, property and the entrepreneurial form are sent off to a purgatory of incarceration and classification. In this theocracy it makes perfect sense to jail a youngster for nicking a bottle of water because the greater crime, beyond that of thieving the object itself, is the blatant disregard it shows for surplus value and the exchange value embodied in money. Likewise robbing for the sake of it not only shows up the worthlessness of these commodities - a disrespect for the commodity as much as an indicator of greed - but it is a kind of people's auto-reduction to the ‘naturalised' criminality of ‘markup', ‘profit margins' and welfare ‘bribes'. Of course part of the moral outrage stems from the extent and ubiquity of the looting and this outrage must, by self-preservatory necessity, be blind to the ‘oversignification' of the riots that, in their very chaos, appear as a kind of ‘deforming' mandate that, weirdly enough, complements the politicians presiding over a foreclosure of a by now financialised politics.


4. This ‘oversignifcation' is polysemic noise and it is enigmatic to the turnkeys of capital who, seeing the ‘neutrality' of their governmental and ideological forms retaliated against, are set adrift before what Miguel Abensour might call a ‘political moment': ‘the moment most liable to gain an excessive meaning, to go beyond the meaning proper to it'.2 The meaning deemed ‘proper to it', as usual, is criminality, but the excess of this meaning should take in the relationship between crime and poverty, between abandonment and rage, between hope and despair (all inadmissible in a court of law). That the riots are a political moment does not mean that those who participated in them face the political state as an homogeneity; they are not consciously proletarian though a majority are working class (or even part of the ‘surplus population'); they are not all gang members or linked in varying degrees to a more organised crime set up; they have not all been stopped and searched; not all been in prison etc.3 The move to deem all who participated as ‘criminals' - as if to suggest all those who carry convictions are the same ‘type' - is just as much about the refusal to see the politics in hope and despair, in abandonment and rage as it is a refusal to see the politics in poverty. Whilst this latter has a long tradition it is a tradition that, on the whole, has, like the political state, not taken in the affective dimension which were it to do, may have led to a less meaning driven capture of the riots; to a ‘thinking emancipation otherwise'; towards a re-forming of ‘political links' as relational.4


5. The outrage of the political class meets the enragement of those subject to austerity, and whilst they are not an homogenous mass, could it be said that, speaking a ‘language of acts' (Pasolini), those out on the streets formed an ‘horizon' for the political state as well as for us politicos; and became a form of ‘unrecognisable demos'.5 No longer an ‘idea as subject' (a definable gender, class or race) these crowds, often called upon to ‘participate', return the loaded inveiglement to speak with a language (as often a blasé beat as a gestural scream) that is untranslatable into the language-norms that would seek to bestill it as ‘criminal', as ‘proletarian', as ‘underclass', as ‘materialistic'. Not fighting for a cause, but fighting against causes, against a dimly perceivable - but all the same felt - overdetermination of their lives by, well, in the immediate past, austerity measures caused by the bank bailout. Not fighting as a ‘body' but fighting for the body, fighting the pressures felt by bodies in the form of abandonment, hunger, desire, aggression, alienation and stoic hopelessness. In Tottenham, that the family and friends of a police murder victim were ignored after requesting to be heard out is an indication of a callousness that comes along with capitalist social relations: the ‘correct channels', the strict form of even a verbal exchange, could not be ‘exceeded'. So these non-relations began to be ‘exceeded' (de-linked) by an at times vicious secession from those very channels; a secession away from the ‘policed' language of politics towards appeasing the demands of instinct for which there is maybe no language except the ‘language of acts'.


Image: Trokikhouse, 'The Savage and Beyond', 1991


6. Yet instinct, such as rage, is not apolitical. The sexual instinct, the appeasement of which is often negotiatory, a form of communication, is political to the degree that this ‘negotiation' of drives and their timing, their relationality, is political. Rage, present in muted form as the aggressive component of the sexual instinct, is a similarly political moment by means of its modulation of transgression and negotiation. So, like the sexual instinct, rage doesn't just come from anywhere (again the criminality tag helps the forces of ‘civil peace' to occlude the affective dimension), but its causes are a manifold layering of experiences through which a person comes to feel affronted, neglected and unwitnessed (not negotiated with). When these forms of emotional deprivation (lack of care) meet a situation of poverty and the pressures of material survival through which living horizons and future possibilities are extremely foreshortened, then, in some circumstances, when it is felt there's nothing to lose and nothing to live for, rage can stalk the social psyche. So rage, it could be said, comes to be expressive of a lack of hope, a lack of hope that cannot be countenanced or communicated because until the circumstances provoking its enragement are met, this rage exists as immanent.


This may well go some way toward getting a handle on some of the acts of ‘concise violence' witnessed in the riots - the burning of inhabited buildings, the hit and run, the assault and subsequent death of a pensioner.6 Even the more embittered revolutionaries would find it hard to condone such ‘savage acts', but it is maybe that writers like Pasolini and Genet, who embrace, neigh love, the ‘savage' and the wilfully abject in its human form, maybe it is such writers as these who seek and accept something else in this rage. Both Genet and Pasolini often get impatient with knowing, as many politicos know, that rage can arise at the sight and feel of exploitation, can come from a conscious felt sense of alienation from the economic and political system, can come from the actions of the police. They sense, too, that both the enraged and the outraged can experience a ‘blackout', a short circuit as impulses takeover. Perhaps this impulsiveness is what comes over when we see footage of folk tearing at the shutters of inconspicuous shops and, as one eye witness described, scrambling in a heap fighting over a spilled tray of looted jewels. And yet, even in these moments Pasolini, for one, would spare the rioters an empathic hearing and spare us too the trap of our ideolectual urge: they ‘appear not only without any logical goal but without even the shadow of an idea: merely expressing with all its strength the general disquiet and restlessness - the anxiety, in fact'.7


7. Impulsive? How far does anxiety inform the impulsive? Even so, what can we possibly expect? For Bernard Stiegler, coupling the ‘structurally short term' effects of fictitious capital to the lust of the drive for appeasement of needs (instant gratification), capitalism has become drive based: ‘novelty is valorised at the expense of durability, and this organisation of detachment (unfaithfulness/infidelity) contributes [...] to the spread of drive-based behaviours'.8 Whilst this could possibly gloss some of the more gratuitous looting in the August streets, it also sets this looting against a backdrop of speculative greed and ‘instant returns' on investments of the glorified criminals in the banking sector. The very cuts whose blade could have been close to a riotous skin are themselves short termist and the deregulation, in a wicked inverse, was extended to the deregulation, the temporary de-forming, of the law of the land. So, was it that high streets became the site of an anxiety informed ‘language of acts'? Did they become the scene for a dissociated revenge of dissociated consumers? Was the libidinal energy so sought after by the window displays returned to them as a ‘quick fuck' minus the time of desire? Was it a political indicator that, for some bordering on many, there is no ‘neutrality of living' when life itself is no longer guaranteed and relationships are full of hard to express anxiety? Was it that the broadcast effacement of such neutrality has to be called ‘greed' in order to ground it in capitalist culture, but, at the same time, remove the desperation of poverty from purview and, furthermore, discredit any claim it may have to inhabit the political?


8. Just as capital is intermittently faithful to those who can pay, so too the semi- detached state is not faithful to all its ‘subjects'. The resultant evacuation of the political by those learning about their own abandonment is more like an enforced withdrawal. They are barricaded out by a wall of ‘political formalism', procedure and financialised jargon that excludes them. Pasolini again:


The communicativeness of the world of applied science [i.e. politics], of industrial eternity, presents itself instead as strictly practical. And therefore monstrous. No word will have a sense that is not functional [...] the autonomous expression of a ‘gratuitous' sentiment will be inconceivable.9


And so, maybe it could be said that many of those who were out on the street in an active anti-form way in August are amongst those who are neither admitted nor desire to be admitted into the political realm but who, speaking a ‘language of acts' respond to the ‘monstrosity' with the enaction of an ‘unrecognisable demos'. Such a demos, as Abensour would maintain in his musings about what the young Marx meant by ‘real democracy', is this fissure through which the political state is ‘reduced' from its position as ‘the moment of the political', the dominant instant of the political that keeps the ‘other realms' of life subordinate and silent; deems them apolitical.10 The riots, then, with their ‘language of acts', their amassed expression of social insecurity, posed a challenge to the authority of the political state in its mission to maintain homogeneity and police the uncontainable overspill. They posed a challenge too to those for whom a certain social opacity and indeterminacy are similarly anathema.


Such a temporary loss of civil foundations and the move into the streets of an indeterminate body of people displaying an acute restlessness, an at times ‘kamikaze' flouting of the law and a need to be heard in their painful grievance is reminiscent of Claude Lefort's ‘savage democracy'. That which, in the guise of the rageful ‘raw being' of the sans-culotte of the French Revolution, marked a founding moment of the modern western political state.11 Moreover, as Abensour informs us, the ‘right to insurrection' was deemed to be a ‘democratic right' back in these days and, he adds, up to the Paris Commune. That this history, and indeed the events of the Arab Spring, are kept at an ineffectual distance from most western political states, is indicative of the reification of ‘democracy' that can admit of no further instituting ‘discrepencies'. The dream of the rational state as the ‘organising form that passes for the whole' now has capital as this organising form and as a result politics, in the form it is now practised (affectless and technocratic), seems more and more to be revealed as the language of a ‘pseudo totality'.12 The ‘neutrality of living' becomes asphyxiated in its own forms of empiricised communication and the ‘non-totalisable' human becomes thwarted and ‘renditioned'.


9. As it could be heard from Tahrir Square so it is heard from the London prisons that ‘our voice has been heard ... we are not animals.' That voice may be indiscernible to some, to others, as a ‘criminal' voice, it should not be heard and it should be stripped of its ‘rights'. But it is a voice that, held in reflux by a structurally informed muteness, may well be speaking the ‘language of acts' and seeking to be expressive of affect rather than being ‘educated' to speak that language that Jean Genet complained about in the 1940s: a ‘language of words' that are ‘weighed down with precise ideas'.13 This weight of the determinate, this exchange value of expression whereby affect (a proto-meaning in itself) should be forfeited for precision with the resultant reward of entry into ‘civil society' and its politics, is in itself a bottling up of the ‘overspill' of affect and a surplus humanness that engenders the ‘savage' as a moment of the ‘species-being'. Pasolini and Genet, with their ‘telling inarticulacy', well understood this ‘language of acts' as a somatic and poetic embodiment, a flouting of the dictatorship of the ‘formal universality' of state sanctioned modes of language. Genet writing of his time spent with the Black Panthers in the early '70s says: ‘the force of what was called Panther rhetoric or word-mongering resided not in elegant discourse but in strength of affirmation (or denial), in anger of tone and timbre'.14 Such ‘word-mongering', ringfenced as ‘aggressive', and ignored as ‘rageful', may well be, in Abensour's view, an instance of an imprecise ‘savage democracy': a political moment in which we can playfully create one another and in which passion as a relational link is once more given a space in contradistinction to a reified democracy. This latter cannot countenance that its ‘subjects' are filled with the discrepencies, contradictions and discords of an uncontainable species-life that, in its ‘telling inarticulacy', seemed, in August, to bring into view an experience of the wobbling of those very institutional foundations that are charged with maintaining ‘civic peace'.


10. Despite their ‘criminal' tag, those taking part in the riots formed an opaque body that academic research will now be charged with making transparent. Is this opaqueness, infuriating to the political state, not the very auto-conflictual opaqueness of species life? How often can we be said to be transparent to ourselves? Moreover, is it not an opaqueness through which the enigma of the self and the enigma of the social can no longer be solved accept as a ‘language of acts' that entails the abandonment of forms of ‘ideality' that have blinded us to the (albeit risky) ‘instituting' power of species-being? As Abensour adds in his musing on ‘savage democracy': ‘Every social manifestation is in the same movement a threat of dissolution, an exposure to division and to the loss of self, as if every manifestation were inhabited [...] by the threat of its own dissolution'.15 The riots may well have brought into purview this threat of dissolution of the political state and its ‘precise words', they exposed us to division but in so doing they exposed us to divided selves, to a ‘self-discrepency' between, say, condoning the most savage acts whilst feeling an optimistic excitement at the breach they formed in the ‘neutrality of living'. The riots could be said to highlight such schizo states; states in which the contradictions of living become ‘felt contradications' that not so much bypass thought as bring it into relation with instinct. So, maybe the affective experience of the ‘savage' that the riots permitted could get us beyond a reified democracy whose rationalist ‘pseudo totality' demonises our ‘savage' selves and thus, in line with the myth of productive progress, removes a key facet of our indeterminate species-life and makes us, by means of such devices as guilt, ready to be produced as the financialised subjects required of the political state.16


11. This notion of the ‘production of the subject' may well figure the riots as a form of ‘human strike'. Not only in the suspension of the ‘human' in favour of the ‘savage', but as a retaliatory strike against the very apparatus of the production of the subject through such institutional dispositifs as the education system. For Pasolini, who consistently and painfully spoke of the genocide of the working class, the political state had become ‘the new production (production of human beings)'.17 Maybe this could take on an added resonance in that the increasingly noted failure of capital to reproduce the working class leads to a necessity for the subject to be produced elsewhere than the site of wage labour. This hiatus, this dissolution of the working subject and the incursion of state-led control into the ‘bodies' of its subjects, marks a further opaque void for the political state as well as the traditional left. The regulatory mechanism of wage labour is absent for many, perhaps more so for those who were out on the streets in August. Just as the looting, then, flouts the law of the wage relation, so too does the latter's absence remove a main social identifying pole. That for some this is to be welcomed (ne travaillez jamais), for others it may be an instance of the ‘loss of the self' when the ‘self', under the value-form of capital, is encouraged to identify with the various roles that wage labour allots. The ‘meaning of life' is bound up with work but its absence throws us back on a kind of ‘savage' survival and an equally savage interrogation of what it is to be human (a social individual) without the capital-imposed definition of life as a life of wage labour.18


As Abensour is quick to point out the ‘savage', as Lefort uses it, is not the return to a state of nature, but a baseline in the forecoming of ‘species existence, the advent of human existence', a socialised nature that must admit of ‘other realms', those other disavowed areas of species activity that should not be compressed out of existent expression by the political pseudo-totality of a reified and financialised democracy.19 The inadmission of the ‘savage' to the demos is of course one sided. The savagery of financial capitalism is, perhaps due to its level of abstraction and its ultra-sublimated mechanisms, admitted poll position (the mechanisms of both are a snug fit). But the ‘beyond' of such savagery is, as Pasolini mourns, nothing less than a genocide, nothing less than the sacrifice of ‘raw being'. An element of this ‘raw being' was sacrificed to the law courts in the weeks after the riots. It had no ‘idea' to defend itself with, only ‘gratuitous sentiment' and the ‘language of acts' that disqualified it from the polis and made its ‘unrecognisable demos' truly opaque. Its sudden speed of arousal left us aghast and, at times, thankfully speechless. Theory, always playing second fiddle to praxis and affect, comes in to temporarily save us: ‘The "ceremony" of the political should be converted to the species-life of the real and total being of the demos [...] that in its people-being belongs at once to the political principle and the sensualist principle'.20 There is, then, some urgency in at least revealing the pseudo-totality of politics to its affectless practitioners (who, as Pasolini maintains in his intervention at the Radical Party Congress of 1975, ‘live their rhetoric with a total absence of any self-criticism').21 Such a pseudo-totality, the happy enterprise of unreflexive selves in an unquestioning relation to the ‘all' of their knowledge, creates a politics without the sensual and savage component of species life.22 It is a stunted totality passing for an ad hominen practice: the remainder that could well overspill the totality with its ‘savage democracy' goes by unnoticed and so too does the ‘can-be of the self-contradicting'.23 Pasolini and Genet had already begun to speak of such an impossible being as a becoming. Beyond the love offered by them to the ‘people-being', their love of the remainder and the remaindered made them hopeful that a ‘politics of anxiety', a politics premised upon an acceptance of both the savagery of species-life and the radical surprise of indeterminancy, would go some step towards blasting up this lifeless ceremony that passes as politics.



Howard Slater <howard.slater AT> is a volunteer play therapist and sometime writer. His book, Anomie/Bonhomie and Other Writings, will be published by Mute Books in January 2012





Tronikhouse: ‘The Savage and Beyond', Incognito Records (1991)


The Pop Group: ‘Thief of Fire', Radar Records (1979)


Newham Generals: ‘Things That I Do', Dirtee Stank Recordings (2009)



1 Miguel Abensour, Democracy Against The State, Cambridge: Polity, 2011, p.34. Much of what follows is informed by this book in which Abensour conducts an exploratory reading of Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

2 Ibid, p.57.

3 For a take on Marx's concept of ‘surplus population' see ‘Misery and Debt - On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital', Endnotes II, April 2010.

4 For ‘thinking emancipation otherwise' see: Abensour, op.cit., p.vii.

5 This ‘language of acts' is maybe far distant from a rhetorical and more acceptable ‘speech act', it is an embodiment, perhaps in this instance, of a spontaneity (itself conditioned by affective layering?) that subtracts from a ‘higher' yet blunted rhetorical explanatory plane and becomes expressive of a suffering (phôné) that is too ‘savage' for the demos and hence ‘unrecognisable'.

6 The phrase ‘concise violence' is Genet's, see: Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, London: Panther, 1965, p.248.

7 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, London: Secker & Warburg, 1997, p.436.

8 Bernard Stiegler, Towards a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge: Polity, 2010, p.83.

9 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005, p.34.

10 Abensour, op.cit., p.92.

11 Ibid, p.102-124.

12 Ibid, p.60. John Holloway puts it: ‘The state, by its very existence, says in effect, "I am the force of social cohesion, I am the centre of social determination."' See John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2010, p.133.

13 Jean Genet, op.cit., p.72.

14 Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, New York Review Books, 2003, p.56.

15 Abensour, op.cit., p.104.

16 Such musings could be read as ‘primitivist' if we were to believe that our ‘indeterminant species life' is not stock-full of social determinations and conditioning that it is risky to express. The risk emanates from at least two sides: the academic left's wariness of the ‘irrational' and the political state's fear of the unraveling of our capitalist conditioning.

17 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lutheran Letters, London: Carcanet, 1981, p.109.

18 Becoming a ‘social individual' is itself traumatic (savaging our self) when subjects are produced/taught to identify as individuals and have proprietorial conditions of worth. See for instance Lacan's formula: ‘I is a fortress' cited by Catherine Clément, Syncope: A Philosophy of Rapture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p.122.

19 Abensour, op.cit., p.73.

20 Ibid, p.71.

21 Pasolini, op.cit., p.121.

22 In some senses the Consciousness Raising Groups of the ‘70s Women's Liberation Movement were forums for just such a critique of the pseudo-totality and for an interrogation of the place of (a remaindered) gender within capitalism.

23 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope Vol.1, MIT Press, 1995, p.225.

Announcement: Is this all there is?

November 15, 2011 - 6:59pm
By Open Space, Open Systems

° Is this all there is? | 18 November - 15 December 2011

Opening: 17 November, 19.00 pm

Project curators: Gülsen Bal and Alenka Gregori?

Participating artists:

Guy Ben-Ner
Ibro Hasanovi?
Milica Tomi?

Round table talk/discussion: No(W)Here by Nermin Sayba??l?
19 November, 17.00

Location: Open Space, Open Systems

Additional publication will accompany the project in an Intellect publication, UK.
A special issue: Is this all there is? (coming out in December 2011)
Journal of Visual Art Practice
Editor: Christopher Smith
Guest Editor: Gülsen Bal
Guest Co-Editor: Alenka Gregori?

How can we link the idea that is related with the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity that traces the non-alignment movement initiated in 1955 with today’s society? So, how can we read the historical roots of non-alignment? How can we escape from being always placed in either East or West or/and North or South without having any influence on basic fact of place of birth? How can one stop this ever going process? We cannot ignore basic facts but we can decide that we don’t want to be faced with an accomplished fact. Can we start to act non-aligned… not being anywhere but being everywhere?

Here there is a need to turn to the “East reading East” coded analyses with the hope to reveal the problematic that arises in its immediate effects on political praxis. For that reason this project aims to create new concepts in its reference to the “new liminal practices, [which] open up the social field to the possibility of manifold instantiations [...] and thereby ensure the proximity of the creation of values and the production of subjectivity [...] between being as difference and subjectivity as processual and transient actualisation”. How, then, is it possible to move beyond the realm of representation in which the relations of agency to the admission of indeterminacy are conceived?

Artist info:

Guy Ben-Ner
Stealing Beauty, Video, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Konrad Fischer Galerie (Düsseldorf)

Stealing Beauty was shot without permission at numerous IKEA stores around New York, Berlin and Tel Aviv. In the movie the Ben-Ner’s quite naturally inhabit idealized showroom interiors with price tags dangling from furniture, and shoppers occasionally interrupting the family's daily routines. Because of the hit-and-run filming, the traditional cinematic continuity is abandoned and the changing sets are stand-ins for their home. The narrative, however, remains linear as the father offers life lessons on the subjects of economic exchange, meaning of private property, ethics, and family love eventually leading to the children's rebellious manifesto.
His very process - using Ikea room models (in stores in Israel, Germany and the US) as a ready-made for his loosely scripted sitcom, stealing footage before he is chased out - tells us everything about his relation to free trade and international mega-corporations.

Ibro Hasanovi?
Attempt of being..., Video, 2006

In the video work Attempt of being, Hasanovi? sits in a grass field and spontaneously reads Sidonie – Gabrielle Colette's book L’Ingénue libertine (The Gentle Libertine, 1909.) in French, language that he did not speak at the time; trying to create the platform that questions the idea of possible.

Principle of Organization and Action/ The Neue Slowenische Kunst collective (NSK) Chart, 1984/2005
Lambda print, 157 x 203 cm
Courtesy of Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group

The Neue Slowenische Kunst collective (NSK) was formed by three founding groups – Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre, Irwin and Laibach – back in 1984, still within the framework of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Collaboration, a free flow of ideas among individual members and groups, a declarative copyleft, which was not limited even by the indication of authorship, as well as mutual assistance and joint planning of particular moves and actions were key for the development and operation of NSK, although the groups were autonomous in their activities. Awareness of the specific conditions for operation in the field of art in the then Yugoslavia, which was largely defined by the closedness of the art system and a valorization system adjusted to local needs, led to a concentration of critical mass and confrontation with the art system. The antagonism generated in this way, as a consequence, clearly delineated the contours of and subjectivized particular groups and NSK as a whole. Self-evidently, in conditions of strained relationships, the responsibility for art production and its reflection lay solely with us, and it was precisely through steering this confrontation that we established our autonomy. In short, collaboration and common wealth were the basis and the inevitable consequence of Neue Slowenische Kunst’s positioning in relation to the cultural and political reality of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
NSK was formed by three founding groups, concretely by members of this three groups. They confirmed the foundation of NSK by voting and simultaneously agreed upon it’s organizational chart. This is one of few elements in which Noue Slowenische Kunst is objectified, not because it is properly represented by it but because NSK was formed through it.

Milica Tomi?
Black on White: Refracting the whiteness of the whites, 2011
Mixed media installtion

Late ‘50s, Oskar Davi?o, who was a surrealist writer, poet and linguistic genius, as every surrealist worthy of that name must be visited in a occasion of a non-aligned movement "preparation" a certain African country, wherehe spoke to men of letters, politicians, shaman and ordinary people as their guest. He commuted himself sometimes with the help of an interpreter and sometimes in his second mother tongue, French, which was also the colonial language of his hosts’ country. He wrote a book about it called Crno na belo (1963) – literally translated “Black on White”, a Serbo-Croatian syntagm to which the English phrase “in black and white” comes closest, which demands: speak the truth! or testify to the truth! But it also means that the truth is written on a paper, becoming an evidence, a document. The book was a travelogue dealing with the contemporaneous African post-colonial societies.
This work tries to analyze a passage where Oskar Davi?o tells us about the truck journey where a vivid discussion on development of political life in Africa takes place. It is a request to testify and tell the truth about the complex situation of anti-colonial politics, disassembling and decomponizing the WHITE COLOR into the colors of the political parties and organizations and their presence at that time in Africa.

supported by:

MA 7 - Interkulturelle und Internationale Aktivitäten
ERSTE Foundation

kind support provided by:

cyberlab Digitale Entwicklungen GmbH

In collaboration with the VIENNA ART WEEK

About us:
Open Friday, Saturday 13.00 - 18.30 and open for the rest of the week days by appointment only.
Admission free

Open Space, Open Systems
Zentrum für Kunstprojekte
Lassingleithnerplatz 2
A- 1020 Vienna

(+43) 699 115 286 32

for more info:

Open Space, Open Systems - Zentrum für Kunstprojekte aims to create the most vital facilities for art concerned with contributing a model strategy for cross-border and interregional projects on the basis of improving improving new approach.

What Next For Education Struggles

November 1, 2011 - 8:29am
By Sarah Taylor

After August’s riots and with a student demonstration on 9 November and a national strike on 30 November planned Sarah Taylor asks, will the contradictions of last year’s student movement resolve or simply extend themselves?


Last year was so simple. The government wanted to triple fees and there was a vote coming up. Smashing Millbank made everything seem possible. Demonstrations stopped going where they were told, school students played truant to run riot in Oxford Street, occupations at universities became the norm. But the vote was lost. Tired and cold, we went home and didn’t come back.


A year later, the lectures and lessons have restarted and the student demonstrations are planned again. The first is on 9 November – a year since the occupation of Millbank. But what do we do on this anniversary? If it was all about the vote on tuition fees and keeping Educational Maintenance Allowance, then perhaps we should lay a wreath for the lost fight – for the university students filming themselves Twittering in occupations, and for the school students smashing up shops, for dance-offs in libraries and grime in kettles.1 But if it was about something more, and if all these people are still angry, what happens next?


Image: Book bloc, London, November 2010


National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and the Education Activist Network (EAN) called the 9 November protest. The National Union of Students (NUS), now apparently resigned to its insignificance, officially supports the demonstration, and has agreed to provide some resources to help publicise it, although this doesn’t seem to stretch to the use of its website, which currently headlines ‘Freshers’ advice from the cast of Hollyoaks’.2 Filling the hole left by the NUS, the new student organisations are looking a lot like the old left. EAN was never shy of being the offspring of the ageing Socialist Workers Party, and although NCAFC was originally a loose network of students, over the summer it elected itself a National Committee with 14 permanent members and now describes itself as one of the organisations that ‘led’ the student protests.3

It works both ways – the old left also wants to emulate the students. Last year, Unite’s Len McCluskey wrote in The Guardian,


Britain’s students have certainly put the trade union movement on the spot. Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach […] The magnificent students’ movement urgently needs to find a wider echo if the government is to be stopped.


But he also thinks that any ‘wider echo’ will need trade unions to give ‘guidance’ to people’s anger, to ‘put it in a manner that will hopefully make the government take a step back.’


On 30 November, public sector workers will walk out over pensions, in what is set to be the biggest strike since the 1926 general strike. Education workers are the most obvious point of contact between the strikers and the students. Most teaching unions, ranging from the large and relatively militant National Union of Teachers to the small and conservative Association of Teachers and Lecturers, will be walking out. The higher and further education union the University and College Union will also be on strike. In a show of solidarity, the NUS leader warns, ‘Any action that threatens students’ ability to progress from year to year, or graduate at all, will immediately lose student support.’4 Leaving the NUS to the cast of Hollyoaks, NCAFC and EAN have called for student walkouts and direct action on the day of the strike. A similar call-out for the smaller 30 June public sector strike met with little response, but away from end of term lethargy, and with more workers on strike, young people might be tempted onto the streets. 


Image: Occupy LSX, London, 2011


Yet, as the last strike indicated, the government is not really fazed by one-day strikes – far from stepping back, it steps over them and keeps on going. Even if students do decide to join in the struggle for pensions, the government is unlikely to feel threatened by 12 hours of adults and children fighting to retire.But you would be hard pushed to find a subject further from the minds of young people than pensions. Even the striking teachers will tell you that it is work and not retirement that really frightens them. The schools White Paper and the higher education White Paper map out similar plans to deepen the privatisation of the education system: both drive educational institutions into the hands of corporations; both see students and parents as consumers looking for ‘choice’ or ‘value for money’; both threaten teachers’ and lecturers’ nationally agreed pay and conditions; and both create a two-tier system in which adequately funded education is reserved for the well informed and well moneyed. 



The government has engineered the cap on university places in such a way that the Russell Group universities are allowed to siphon off more students with grades AAB and above, and other universities, having lost these students, are encouraged to drop fees below £7,500 to compete with private providers for a pool of 20 thousand extra places. Meanwhile, the government’s ‘free schools’ allow groups of middle class parents to open schools, with education corporations taking over when they find they have bitten off more than they can chew. If that wasn’t enough, Labour’s Academies, increasingly part of corporation or church run chains, have been extended to include primary schools. Senior civil servants (who, incidentally, and confusingly, might also join the strike on 30 November) showed their sense of humour by naming the schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching and the higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System.


But schools are not only subject to direct attacks – they also suffer from the removal of benefits, wages, houses and every other meagre compensation that was previously offered to children and their families. I will take a primary school and secondary school I know as examples of this, but these are by no means isolated cases – the same stories can be heard in schools across the country.



Image: Anti-Academies Alliance Bournville



The primary school, where 48 percent of the children are on free school meals, but which is located in a rich London borough, expects to lose half of its pupils once the national housing benefit cap comes into effect – no longer able to afford to rent their own homes, their families will be forced to move from the borough or face eviction. To make things worse, because only 3 percent of primary schools have taken up Education Minister Michael Gove’s generous offer for them to voluntarily become Academies, schools like this one are going to be forced to become Academies next year if they don’t fulfil certain, impossible to fulfil, criteria.


The secondary school, based in rural Wales, is facing falling student enrolment as factory after factory in the area is closed and, with dwindling funds from low intake, middle class parents exercising their ‘parental choice’ decide to send their children elsewhere. This school is likely to be one of half the schools shut down in the county under a PricewaterhouseCoopers consulted ‘modernisation’ programme, which will see the end of schools that have been the centre of villages and towns for generations, and will force children to travel for up to an hour on country roads before they get to their first lesson.


Once they’ve left school, more and more of these children won’t be able to afford to go to college, let alone university. Many of them won’t get jobs, won’t get benefits, won’t get houses. They can only dream of retirement. The government has something right – students are at the heart of the system – it beats at them from all sides.


This was clearly expressed in August when, away from the constraints of term time, articulated demands, symbolic targets and organising committees, Britain’s teenagers went rioting. The same McCluskey who heaped praise upon the student riots described the August riots as ‘the exact opposite of community spirit, collectivism and what trade unionism is all about.’5 While, a year on from the student riots, many of those arrested are still awaiting trial, the August riots saw courts operating throughout the night, getting people off the streets and into prison as quickly as possible. Some of those arrested during the student protests who were unfortunate enough to be tried immediately after the summer riots, found themselves with harsher sentences than students convicted of exactly the same crimes before the riots. The August riots shook the authorities in a way that the student riots did not. Anything that happens next will have to be seen through the smoke of Tottenham, Croydon, Manchester and Birmingham.


The difference between the winter’s student riots and the summer’s standard riots is something the student leaders have been keen to reinforce. NCAFC patronise the young ‘victims’, telling them their rioting ‘will not improve the situation’, and arguing that their anger ‘needs to be channelled into tackling the real causes of injustice and inequality.’6 By which we can only assume they mean Topshop, Camilla Parker-Bowles, an office block in Millbank, the windows of the treasury, Barclays bank, parliamentary votes and the police, rather than Footlocker, the Sony warehouse, JD Sports, Carphone Warehouse, jewellery shops, furniture chains and the police. A good riot announces itself with a protest beforehand, has a symbolic target and a view of Big Ben. A bad riot is localised, unplanned, gets you free trainers, and can even happen when politicians are away on holiday. Good riots have uncontrollable fire extinguishers, bad riots have uncontrollable fires.


The attempt to divide the good and the bad ignores the fact that the summer riots are a continuation of, rather than a break with, the winter riots. The summer riots happened because the winter riots were never going to tackle ‘the real causes of justice and inequality.’ They happened because the winter riots were survived by a lot of angry people who knew that parliamentary votes had nothing to do with them. They gave up asking for £30 a week – they took what they wanted and destroyed what they hated, and they didn’t need to go to central London for that, because it was right outside their doors.


One intrepid reporter of student protest fame spent the August riots ‘huddled’ on the unconvincing front line that is her living room – ‘where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer.’ ‘Shell-shocked’ she advises her readers to follow the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter.7 The divide between the university students and the school students, even if now only faintly drawn, could be a sign of worse to come. The video shot during the student protests in which university students grab hold of a boy who’d thrown something burning, and attempt to hand him over to the police, a video which was posted online and subsequently on the Metropolitan Police Wanted list, was reminiscent of those much deeper divides in Paris between the university students and those from the suburbs during the anti-CPE protests. Although NCAFC’s statement on the August rioters is more of a patronising ticking off than condemnation, it shows that the student ‘spokespeople’ fear association with a more uncontainable – unkettlable – battle. It shows the fear, perhaps, that they might be about to lose control.


But it is precisely these more complicated, uncontrollable battles that provide the possibility for something more than a nostalgic reconstruction of the good old days of 2010. As people are evicted from their homes, lose their jobs, are beaten up by police, as their schools are privatised, universities go bankrupt and libraries are destroyed, resistance will have to happen there and then – on a thousand front lines, in street battles and marches, in ongoing strikes and occupations. We will only hear the ‘wider echo’ of the student protests when anger can no longer be muffled in days out at Westminster, articulated in simple slogans, or separated into causes – when a riot can no longer be just a student riot, and a struggle can no longer be just an education struggle.



Sarah Taylor <sarah.taylor55 AT> has just stopped being a student. She now has nothing better to do than write about student protests




1 Educational Maintenance Allowance is a weekly means tested payment of up to £30 given to young people in further education. The scheme was closed to new applicants from England in January 2011.

2 NCAFC website, ‘NUS officially supports November 9th national demonstration’, 22 September 2011, and NUS website,

3 NCAFC website, ‘NCAFC statement on the riots’, 11 August 2011,

4 Quoted in John Morgan, ‘Pension action plans threaten NUS-UCU alliance’, 13 October 2011,

5 Quoted in Toby Helm, ‘Unite leader Len McCluskey calls for protests and strikes against cuts’, 10 September 2011,

6 NCAFC website, ‘NCAFC statement on the riots’, 11 August 2011,

7 Laurie Penny, ‘Panic on the streets of London’, 9 August 2011,

Rage - new zine

October 23, 2011 - 7:24am
By rage of maidens


We now have an abundance of printed RAGE, email us at rageofmaidens[at] if you would like to distribute some. xo

Rewire Yourself

October 20, 2011 - 11:31am
By Lorena Rivero de Beer p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }a:link { }em.ctl { font-style: normal; 

Liverpool's recent Rewire conference looked to advance new and progressive readings of media art and theory. But, asks Lorena Rivero de Beer, who was it speaking to and in whose interest?


I can't start this review without giving you some background about how I arrived at the Rewire conference and the subjective position that it conveys. The latter feels not only important to help you make sense of what I am saying but also an ethical duty, so please, bear with me.



Rewire took place the week following the Free University of Liverpool (FUL) DIY curriculum building workshop. FUL is an initiative set up as a protest against the instrumentalisation of higher education and the rise of its fees to £9,000. The FUL meetings took place in the dungeons of Next to Nowhere, a radical social centre in the centre of Liverpool. Getting out of the dungeons to arrive at the new, shiny, aseptic, £27 million Art and Design Academy building at Liverpool John Moores University to attend a £150 fee conference, was a shock; straight back to the core of neoliberal academia and its blending of high elitism with customer service culture... Still I was excited about the opportunity to attend the conference for free, with the journalist pass, and the privileged access it gave me to a specific form of knowledge within what was announced as a critical and progressive conference.



Image: Intuitively cataloguing the Free University of Liverpool Library


In our FUL meetings in the damp dungeon, the sophistication, intensity of the interaction and level of discussion was difficult and wonderful. Within our discussions we thought about how to use new technologies ethically, questioning the effects that using them might have, thinking about how they can be useful tools for transnational encounters yet how they can also produce meaningless interactions, how, even though the web is an incredible information resource, issues of accessibility (who can access the net and how people with access to it might process the information depending on their background and skills) are still fundamental problems. So I hoped Rewire would fill me with new conceptual frameworks that we could then apply to our thinking about FUL regarding visibility, media coverage, networks, how to apply or think of new technologies in creative and subversive ways, and most importantly, how to think about accessibility.



Like most big conferences (even if there are much bigger ones out there), the amount of sessions, panels and papers was quite overwhelming. There were four sessions every day, each of them with three different panels, which had between four and five speakers. Besides this, there were also parallel talks, exhibitions and performances as part of the AND festival taking place in the evenings and following weekend. While being at the different panels listening to papers ‘til I couldn't take on anymore, I kept thinking about why a conference about media art – an art form that critically explores both the inhuman sides of the media and its modes of social engagement, as well as the creation of interfaces that open up possibilities for more sophisticated collective encounters – was carried out in such a conventional way. A way in which access to knowledge was very difficult and fully dependent on a restricted academic language; that is, a logocentric means of communication that secures and conveys hierarchical positions. Of course the different levels of experience of the speakers and some of the more creative presentations made a difference, but still the insurmountable volume of information, the cold and detached atmosphere and that specific use of language made it almost impossible to share knowledge in a progressive and meaningful way.




As an effect of this language it was very difficult to establish the conference's real nature, where the power lay and who was having an effect on the wider discourse. That information would be more or less accessible to the attendees depending on their background and their access to specific networks; so within the apparent choice, transparency and richness of multiple voices, complex forms of power distribution were operating. As a relative outsider to the field with not much to gain from it in terms of networking, I felt in a privileged position to observe its mechanisms. So I experienced the complexity and I felt lost within the seemingly diverse content of the papers that navigated through a hierarchical discourse marked mainly by institutional powers and presenters' publishing records.



To talk about content and the nature of the different papers in that context I decided to use one of the strategies we used at the Free University of Liverpool to classify the books in the library; a classification aimed at revealing the power hidden in disciplinary divisions and also to reflect upon the subjective positions through which they are made. The FUL library was catalogued as follows: Most important books; Very Important books; Not so important books; Who cares books. Everybody participating in FUL could change the order as they wished and would have to negotiate with others if there was a disagreement. To catalogue/review Rewire I changed books for papers and classified the ones I attended accordingly. Through this approach I intend to generate a space to reflect on the relationship between the discursive normativities operating at the conference and our (hopefully) slightly unruly subjectivities.



Unfortunately no paper fell into the category of Most Important Papers. This category was created for books we loved so much they deserved a new category. I think some of the papers in a different space might have provoked real love, but the context made it really difficult.



Under Very Important Papers I included some interesting papers that looked at notions of functionality and failure, desire and technology, opening up a place to consider how media art can support our understanding of notions of subjectivity, new modes of interrelations, and so on. Within them some were backed by progressive philosophies with special emphasis on thinkers such as Gilles Delueze, Jacques Derrida and Rosi Braidotti.



There were particular presentations that really put their finger on important issues. Through a clear and concise presentation Maria X asked questions about her project media@terra, interrogating what its failures might have been. While questioning the scale of her project she asked: what does it mean for a grassroots initiative to become co-opted by governmental and corporate structures? On the same panel Morten Søndergaard introduced POEX 65 – a transdisciplinary exhibition mounted in Copenhagen in 1965 by a group of 80 international artists, curated by Knud Hvidberg – that aimed at breaking the boundaries of art genres and the autonomy of the ‘work of art' through the active use of technological and mediated platforms. Søndergaard asked important questions about why such experiments faded away and failed to become part of the history of media art. That panel generated important connections between historical failure and meaningful, politically progressive initiatives.



Image: Robert Corydon's Poetry Machine contribution to the exhibition POEX 65, held at the Free Exhibition Building, Copenhagen, December 1965


The presentation by Armin Medosch was excellent. Medosch introduced the early phase of the movement New Tendencies (NT) before it was absorbed by the market. He contextualised his aims politically and defined his project as a research into politically progressive media art.



Certain papers were particularly important because they managed to reveal through their argumentation the position of power taken by other papers on the same panel. I particularly enjoyed the views of Janis Jefferies, her discussion about breakdown and the aesthetics of disappointment which gave a voice to our human fragility. On that same panel Magdalena Tyzlik-Carver introduced important and problematic questions about curatorial systems that bring contingency to the forefront and questioned the immaterial labour demanded from audiences in participatory art.



Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio described how their mass media intervention – in which they stole a million public profiles from Facebook, filtered them through a face-recognition software, and then posted a selection of 250,000 profiles onto a dating website called – gained huge media coverage, a massive public response and a ‘Cease and Desist' letter from Facebook's lawyers. They reflected on how the project exposed the vulnerability of our social identity. This was important as they brought the notion of cultural intervention to the fore and reflected on some strategies to destabilise media-normative social powers.



The paper by Dot Tuer tracing back alternative histories of media art to the Rosario group in Argentina, and linking them to the recent work Thirty Days of Running in Place by artist Ahmed Basiony, brought in a much needed non-Western and politicised perspective. I wish though she had reflected on the complexity of the position from which she was speaking as a western academic.



Many papers I saw were interesting, if mainly descriptive. There were some Not So Important ones, and in the worst cases I would say also ideologically dangerous, since there was a near total absence of self-reflection and self-positioning within wider social issues. They somehow managed to avoid the tensions and complexities of their different positionalities. A clear example of this was Jonathan Lessard's paper looking at the way game genre designs are adapted to technology. It was fun, interesting and well articulated; it would be a brilliant introductory talk for anyone selling games.



There were some particularly well articulated papers that could have opened a space for discussion, but fell short of approaching issues of more central concern. Saskia Korsten's paper for instance, which reflected on our relationship to digital images that hide their relationship to the analogue model, would have been a great if it had ventured a broader consideration of accessibility.



Some papers felt potentially interesting and transformative but were somehow too obscure so their point was lost in abstract theories that didn't make enough of an effort to reach others. This was the case with Emile Deveraux who introduced an interesting although intricate idea about porousness in technology.



Image: Thirty Days of Running Place by Ahmed Basiony


Particularly lacking in the conference, I felt, were discussions about the role of new media in the creation of alternative communities from the perspective of those communities' members, rather than a detached or managerial overview. The exception (from what I saw) was Benjamin Juhani Halsal who discussed his university project in conjunction with Leeds Visual Art Forum. Through a series of conversations they set up a Yahoo! group to serve the visual arts community in Leeds. He discussed how it supported artists promoting their activities within a horizontal space while questioning the alienating effects of this mediated community. Presenting this kind of project is fundamental and empowering, but the paper didn't critically position artists or question what that horizontal space means in wider society.



Within this category I also included some papers that explored current artists projects. They were taken from different perspectives like the presentation by Sander Veenhof in which he questioned the existence of Art 2.0 and how audiences become co-producers of their work, or Heidi Tikka's description of her installation Mother, Child and discussion of the mess and failures which occur in media works.



The position of power taken by certain presenters really pushed me to think Who Cares about what you are saying! Papers such as those presented by Christiane Paul, Margriet Schavemaker or Vince Dziekan, enacted the reproduction of hierarchies in the world of media art by positioning speakers according to the scale of institutional power that backed them. The decision of one of the head figures of the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Margriet Schavemaker, to defend media art spectacles over critical content felt particularly contentious. In a world in which we are swamped by media spectacle that ensures we remain a submissive and consumerist society, isn't it fundamental that we make art spaces remain (or become) a tool for critical reflection?



Based on the approximately 40 papers I heard out of the approximately 140 papers that composed the three day conference, it's fair to say that the event opened up interesting areas of research and contributed towards the expansion of notions of media art, new technologies and science. It explored the histories of media art by tracing back its origins to interesting and obscure projects that have faded over time, it made visible the movement back and forth between the digital and the analogue, it made links with ‘Other' (non-western) cultural histories, it introduced current projects, and expanded the power of its discourse by looking at it through the lens of important progressive philosophies. I am not sure, though, if it managed to move beyond reinforcing its own canon, or if it benefitted something other than itself by the effort of securing a position for its proponents in a Western History with no sense of shame as to the colonial and neoliberal implications attached to this.



A discussion around the radical potentiality of new media art and technologies to open up space for real alternatives to exist while also closing them down because of issues of accessibility was not present. In the current historical situation, such discussion is not only central but ethically unavoidable. Judging events from that perspective, many presentations were difficult to take. With a few wonderful exceptions, most speakers talked from positions of extreme privilege, without questioning themselves, and took reductive and patronising approaches to media art audiences.



The final keynote speaker, Andrew Pickering, finished the conference with a talk that advocated humans becoming aware of their instability and a self which is caught up in the flows and transformations of becoming. Funnily enough he ended the talk with a proposal for a new University that can systematically teach how to think in a new mode of being, one in which the modern relationship between the active subject observing the passive subject is problematised so we find a way of connecting to the world, instead of dominating or framing reality. I agreed fully with that final note, and that's why I am engaged in the creation of FUL. FUL is a protest and has as its main aim the uncovering of the mechanisms through which institutional powers allow some people to develop more than others. It also aims to uncover how institutional powers prevent all of us from flowing and becoming, in order to keep social hierarchies working. To be able to even think of the structural shape of the space that will allow becoming to stay at the core of any pedagogy we desperately need to join forces and think how to create places that help us to flow while providing us with the strength to question and resist the rigid channels of institutional purpose. I wonder how that final talk affected the other people listening to it. To what extent they felt it reflected on their own research and how their research is contributing to building a world in which we, all of us, can understand that we are in the constant process of becoming?



And a final note, something I found quite paradoxical and I really liked was a sentence written on the back of a T-shirt of one of the main speakers. It said: 'Fear is not an option'.



Lorena Rivero de Beer <lorenajohanna AT> is an artist and producer based in Liverpool. She is the co-founder of the Free University of Liverpool and Tuebrook Transnational, a company that creates site-specific outdoor performances/interventions collectively with other residents of North Liverpool. She completed a PhD in 2009 at the Department of Sociology of the University of Essex exploring the relationship between cultural politics, representation, aesthetics and subjectivity in relation to the Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Plaza – Riot – Commune

October 19, 2011 - 7:29pm
By Research & Destroy

We are the generation of the abandoned, the betrayed. Tossed up on the shores of the present by 150 years of failed insurrection, by the shipwreck of the workers’ movement, the failure of a hundred political projects. But it is not only our once-upon-a-time friends who have departed. Today, even our enemies flee from us, even capital abandons us: no more its minimum promises, the right to be exploited, the right to sell one’s labor power. Abandoned, we greet the world with utter abandon. There is no longer any possible adequacy of means and ends, no way of subordinating our actions to the rational or the practical. The present age of austerity means that even the most meager of demands require the social democrats to pick up bricks. Betrayed by democracy, betrayed by the technocrats of socialism, betrayed by the dumb idealism of anarchy, betrayed by the stolid fatalism of the communist ultraleft. We are not the 99%. We are not a fucking percentage at all. We do not count. If we have any power, it is because we are the enemies of all majority, enemies of “the people.” As the old song goes, we are nothing and must become everything.

Though it is a key characteristic of capitalism that each generation of its victims has, in its way, considered its persistence beyond a few decades unlikely if not preposterous, the difference between us and them is that in our case it just happens to be true. Now, not even capital’s footservants can paint a convincing portrait of a future based upon markets and wages – all the sci-fi dystopias of flying cars and robot servants seem truly ridiculous. No, the future only presents as ruin, apocalypse, burning metal in the desert. It is easier to imagine the end of life on earth than our own old age.

This is why anxieties over the implicit statism of anti-austerity struggles are baseless. With the exception of a few benighted activists and media ideologues, everyone understands quite well that the Keynesian card was played long ago, blown on wars and bailouts, the victim of its own monstrous success. There will be no rebirth of the welfare state, no “reindustrialization” of society. This much is obvious: if there is an expansion of the state, it will be a proto-fascist austerity state. Nor is there any longer a “Left” in any meaningful sense, as a force that desires to manage the existing world on different terms, in the name of the workers or the people. Those radicals who, tired of the weakness of the loyal opposition, imagine themselves called upon to “destroy the left” find that their very existence is predicated upon this old, vanished enemy. There is no Left left: only the great dispirited mass of the center, some wild and misdirected antagonism at the fringes.

The hopelessness of deflecting the state from its current course; the realization that even a slight reform of the system would require collective violence of a near revolutionary intensity; the attendant awareness that we would be idiots to go that distance and yet stop short of revolution –all of this gives many anti-austerity struggles a strange desperation and intensity. Our hope is to be found in this very hopelessness, in the fact that, in the current cycle of struggles, means have entirely dissociated from ends. Tactics no longer match with their stated objectives. In France, in response to a proposed change in the retirement age, high school students barricade their schools; roving blockades confuse the police; rioting fills city center after city center. In Britain and Italy, university struggles recruit tens of thousands of youth who have no hope of attending the university, nor any interest in doing so for that matter. There is no longer any possibility of a political calculus that matches ideas with tactics, thinking with doing. Do we suppose that French children are really concerned about what will happen to them once they are ready to retire? Does any young person expect the current social order to last that long? No, they are here to hasten things forward, hasten things toward collapse. Because it is easier to imagine the end of the world than retirement. Because anything is better than this.


For the neo-Leninist philosophes who build their cults in the shells of the dying universities, such an impossibility of lining up means with ends is nothing but a barrier or block. Where is the revolutionary program in the Egyptian revolution, they ask, where is the program in the streets of Britain or Greece? Who will discipline these bodies for their final assault on the palaces and citadels? For such thinkers, only an idea can guarantee the efficacy of these bodies. Only an idea – the idea of communism, as some say – can make of these bodies a proper linkage between means and ends. But communism is not an idea nor an idealism – it means freeing bodies from their subordination to abstractions. Thankfully, we are skittish, faithless and flighty people. We have trouble listening. For us, communism will be material or it will be nothing. It will be a set of immediate practices, immediate satisfactions, or nothing. If we find discipline and organization, it will come from what we do, not what we think.

By “idea” the philosophes mean something like “the Party.” They intend to make themselves and their ideas mean, as structure and social form. They intend to cement the old pact between the intelligentsia and the workers’ movement. But there is no intelligentsia anymore and there certainly is no workers’ movement to speak of. The entire structure of duty and obligation – Christian in origin – upon which the classical programmatic parties were built no longer exists, because capital no longer needs morality for helpmeet. There is acting for ourselves; there is acting with others; but there is no sustained acting for another, out of obligation.


Our indiscipline means that among political ideas only the one idea which is, by its very nature, determined to remain an idea, an ideal, can gain any purchase here: democracy. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Spain to Greece, from Madison to Wall Street, again and again, the “movement of the squares” buckles under the dead weight of this shibboleth. Democracy, the name for the enchantment of the people by its own image, by its potential for endless deferral. Democracy, a decision-making process become political ontology, such that the form itself, the form of the decision, becomes its own content. We democratically decide to be democratic! The people chooses itself!

In the present era – the era of the austerity state and the unemployment economy – radical democracy finds its ideal locus in the metropolitan plaza or square. The plaza is the material embodiment of its ideals – an blank place for a blank form. Through the plaza, radical democracy hearkens back to its origin myth, the agora, the assembly-places of ancient Greece which also served as marketplaces (such that the phrase “I shop” and “I speak in public” were nearly identical). These plazas are not, however, the buzzing markets filled with economic and social transaction, but clean-swept spaces, vast pours of concrete and nothingness, perhaps with a few fountains here or there. These are spaces set aside by the separation of the “political” from the economy, the market. Nowhere is this more clear than in the most recent episode of the “movement of squares” – Occupy Wall Street – which attempted, meekly and rather insincerely, to occupy the real agora, the real space of exchange, but ended up pushed into a small, decorative park on the outskirts of Wall Street, penned by police. This is what building the new world in the shell of the old means today – an assembly ringed by cops.

If there is hope in these manifestations, it lies in the forms of mutual aid that exist there, the experimentation people undertake in providing for their own needs. Already, we see how the occupations are forced against their self-imposed limits, brought into conflict with the police, despite the avowed pacificism of the participants. The plaza occupations – with all their contradictions – are one face of the present dissociation of means from ends. Or rather, they present a situation in which means are not so much expelled as sublimated, present as the object of a vague symbolization, such that the gatherings come to pre-enact or symbolize or prefigure some future moment of insurrection. At their worst, they are vast machines of deferral. At their best, they force their participants toward actually seizing what they believe they are entitled to merely want.

How far we are from Egypt, the putative start of the sequence. There, the initial assembly was an act of symbolic violence, decidedly so, which everyone knew would open onto an encounter with the state and its force. And yet, even there, the separation from the economy – from the ways in which our needs are satisfied – remained inscribed into the revolution from the start. In other words, the Egyptian insurrection was not deflected to the sphere of the political but started there to begin with. And all of the other episodes in the so-called “movement of squares” repeat this primary dislocation, whether they remain hamstrung by pacifism and democratism, as in Spain, or press their demands in material form, as in Greece.

This brings the plaza occupations into relation not only with the entire development of orthodox Marxism, from Lenin through Mao, which places the conquest of state power front and center, but also its apparent opposite in this historical moment: the riots of Athens and London and Oakland, which, bearing the names of Oscar Grant, Alexis Grigoropoulos, or Mark Duggan, treat the police and state power as both cause and effect, provocation and object of rage. Though the looting which always accompanies such eruptions points the way to a more thorough expropriation, these riots, even though they seem the most immediate of antagonistic actions, are also bound by a kind of symbolization, the symbolization of the negative, which says what it wants through a long litany, in letters of fire and broken glass, of what it does not want: not this, not that. We’ve seen their limits already, in Greece –even burning all of the banks and police stations was not enough. Even then, they came into a clearing, a plaza, swept clean by their own relentless negations, where negation itself was a limit. What then? What will we do then? How do we continue?

Between the plaza and the riot, between the most saccharine affirmation and the blackest negation – this is where we find ourselves. Two paths open for us: each one, in its way, a deflection from the burning heart of matter. On the one hand, the endless process of deliberation that must finally, in its narrowing down to a common denominator, arrive at the only single demand possible: a demand for what already is, a demand for the status quo. On the other hand, the desire that has no object, that finds nothing in the world which answers its cry of annihilation.

One fire dies out because it extinguishes its own fuel source. The other because it can find no fuel, no oxygen. In both cases, what is missing is a concrete movement toward the satisfaction of needs outside of wage and market, money and compulsion. The assembly becomes real, loses its merely theatrical character, once its discourse turns to the satisfaction of needs, once it moves to taking over homes and buildings, expropriating goods and equipment. In the same way, the riot finds that truly destroying the commodity and the state means creating a ground entirely inhospitable to such things, entirely inhospitable to work and domination. We do this by facilitating a situation in which there is, quite simply, enough of what we need, in which there is no call for “rationing” or “measure,” no requirement to commensurate what one person takes and what another contributes. This is the only way that an insurrection can survive, and ward off the reimposition of market, capital and state (or some other economic mode based upon class society and domination). The moment we prove ourselves incapable of meeting the needs of everyone – the young and the old, the healthy and infirm, the committed and the uncommitted– we create a situation where it is only a matter of time before people will accept the return of the old dominations. The task is quite simple, and it is monstrously difficult: in a moment of crisis and breakdown, we must institute ways of meeting our needs and desires that depend neither on wages nor money, neither compulsory labor nor administrative decision, and we must do this while defending ourselves against all who stand in our way.

Research & Destroy, 2011

Reposted from:

Occupy London: first thoughts

October 18, 2011 - 7:54am
By History is Made at Night

Occupy London: first thoughts

The various Occupy actions around the world at the weekend have varied in scale, intensity and political mood. Rioting and huge crowds in Rome, a big demonstration in Madrid, and an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement into the heart of New York, with a demonstration in Times Square.

Anti-austerity protests based on the occupation of public spaces in the heart of the city have been building for months (Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Syntagma square in Athens, not to menton Tahrir Square in Cairo). This weekend can be seen as a conscious internationalisation and that counts for something when a major trend in relation to the crisis of the global economy is a resurgence of populist nationalism.

The London action was smaller than New York, Spain or Italy, but respectable in terms of numbers - I would say there were a couple of thousand but difficult to be sure, as the crowd was split up by the police cordon. Unsuprizingly, police lines prevented entrance to Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange, but the crowd did manage to occupy the steps of St Pauls Cathedral. There were some surreal scenes such as people dressed up for weddings in the church making their way through the crowd, and tourists variously frustrated and entertained. I heard one American woman complaining about the protests say that she had come here to help our economy but she wouldn't be coming back!

Compared to previous actions in the City, Occupy the London Stock Exchange felt a bit lacking in energy/intensity. But then again while Stop the City in the 80s and J18 in the 90s aimed to cause havoc for a day and then disperse, the Occupy movement is in for a longer haul, with many people staying there all weekend (and we shall see how much longer). So maybe some conservation of energy was in order.

There was a mix of people there, good, bad and ugly according to your taste. It would be very easy to listen to a few of the latter and dismiss the whole movement out of hand, as for instance Ian Bone does ('One Thousand Cultists Kettled at St Pauls'). But I would say that it is currently too diverse, fluid and open to give up on - there's plenty of room for discussion and development.

And there's certainly plenty to argue about... The adulation of some for Julian Assange, who turned up on Saturday, certainly made me feel uncomfortable, as the guy seems to have a bit of a messiah-complex combined with some incoherent politics (leaving aside the rape accusation - he hasn't been tried yet after all).

A movement without visible leaders is not one that has necessarily solved the problem of leadership, i.e. how to create direction and momentum without giving rise to a self-serving elite (whether elected or self-appointed). Without consciously tackling this issue, the lack of leaders can just mean that the 'leader's chair' still exists even if it remains empty, just waiting to be filled by the first plausible demagogue/celebrity that comes along .

Likewise a movement that disdains politics is not a movement without political assumptions. There is a fundamental shared feeling of 'enough is enough', of the refusal of austerity, and the search for an alternative to a life subject to the fluctuations of the economy. That's all good, but then what?

There are some odd alternative economy models around in the occupations, notions of capitalism without finance capital (the 'real economy'), of monetary reform, of a resource-based economy that is beyond capitalism and communism (this is the line of the new-agey Zeitgeist Movement who had a banner on steps of St Pauls). It is not just that some of these ideas seem to have very little understanding of what capitalism actually is and misrepresent it as a conspiracy by a few rich bankers rather than a global mode of production and exchange. It's far worse than that, because some of these ideas have very murky antecedents and indeed dubious present-day associations.

A lot of 'monetary reform' notions just read like recycled 'Social Credit' ideas, as developed before the Second World War by CH Douglas. As Derek Wall pointed out in his article Social Credit: The Ecosocialism of Fools (Capitalism Nature Socialism, September 2003), Douglas was not only an extreme right wing racist, but his monetery ideas are saturated with an anti-semitic world view. Likewise, the Zeitgeist Movement basically rehash the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, simply subsituting the word 'bankers' for 'jews' (see Zeitgeist Exposed at the Third Estate).

At the Bristol occupation at the weekend this racist conspiracy theory view of capitalism was openly articulated by someobody telling the occupation that 'Zionists want a new world order'. What was disgraceful about this episode was that people dutifully repeated this poison and cheered him rather than kicking the guy out. And that whoever was responsible for 'Occupy Bristol update' on youtube thought this was uncontroversial enough to give the guy a platform.

The 'human microphone' thing in the occupations is in danger of becoming an absurd fetish. In Wall Street people repeated the phrases of speakers to make sure that people further back could hear speeches when a microphone was banned. In most cases where there is no ban it would be surely be better - and very simple - just to set up a PA or use a megaphone, like people have been for years. By the looks of the Bristol occupation, there was no need for anything as the crowd seemed small enough for everybody to hear. It did look like a religious 'call and response' exercise, and involved people in the bad faith exericse of speaking nonsense which on reflection I would hope many would prefer not to utter.

I know that there are plenty of good sound people camping out at St Pauls now, and I think it is very important to get involved and challenge reactionary ideas. To just walk away holding our noses could allow some of these dangerous ideas to get a foothold in the very high profile occupation movement.

Oh yes and this poster on Saturday really got on my tits: 'Go to work, follow fashion, watch TV, spend money, look happy, act normal, repeat after me. I am free'. Patronising activist superiority complex nonsense, looking down on the 'duped' proles. People who work, follow fashion and watch TV (I am guilty on all three counts, your honour) know when we get out of bed every morning that we are not really free, and we know when we have to spend money we haven't got what the economy is all about in a visceral way. And until we move, the 'movement' against capitalism is going nowhere.

Three thoughts on #Occupy

October 16, 2011 - 7:12am
By Pierce Penniless

from: Pierce Penniless via


At a time when a banner reading Katalipsi! (Occupied!) flies from the Greek Finance ministry, here are three thoughts on the proliferating calls to #Occupy! From Pierce Penniless

Wall Street

I’ve not been to Wall Street. I don’t have to. Though separated from New York by an ocean, half a planet and a different political culture (one in which it is significantly less scandalous to talk about the obvious and total failures of capitalism), I can browse through any number of digital echoes and recordings, each with varying degrees of fidelity and spin. What has been most striking about the media reports from Wall Street is that – if you stripped away the inconsequential affect and incidentals – they really could have been written by anyone with an internet connection.

This leads to the usual overhasty generalisations about the role of the internet and rapid distribution of callouts, data, plans, images, videos, plots, analysis, complaint, trolling and information that attends social movements. The obvious issue here is that these things don’t really transmit ideology, analysis or demand, they simply foreground the ease with which the method can be replicated. This method-as-meme is doubtless linked to the prominence of internet communication between activists and interested onlookers; its proliferation also speaks to a new interconnectedness felt by the disenfranchised, whether in New York, London, Barcelona or Athens. But as DSG point out in that link, the success or failure of a method is if it catches the zeitgeist, if it is passed between and above all replicated by a growing multiplicity of consumers.

Let’s lay this out clearly: the internet makes it possible for images, text and vehicles of ideas to be replicated instantaneously and without expending raw materials in the replication – i.e., if I were to give you a manifesto, a poster or a book, I do not need to give away my copy to do so. Any object is replicable without diminution of the original. Hence, I can propose #OccupyLondon, #OccupyLSX, #OccupyTheMoon, and those ideas might be taken up with greater or lesser intensity within the digital fluxus, depending on how quickly they strike the desires of others.

But what does it mean to propose #OccupyX? On some level, it’s clearly an incitement to organisation, i.e., to move from online assent to physical occupation. It also clearly draws a link between the Wall Street example and occupations elsewhere, the spirit of Tahrir being the most obvious example. But the difference between the digital callout and replication should be obvious: physical manifestation requires the use of finite physical resources, as well as numerous less quantifiable factors, such as the goodwill of the state, the tactics of the police, and the energy or organisation of activists. Those to one side, the #OccupyX! imperative demands a replication of particular features of its most prominent American example. These are the most identifiable:

*A move in the target of occupation. Unlike in Tahrir or Barcelona, Wall Street has served to move the focus of occupation from nominally public spaces to targets intimately linked with international financial capitalism. While retaining the strategy of placing under contention the notion that streets and parks are public spaces – hence, let the public return to them, as they are all we have left – Wall Street adds the intuition that there are very obvious enemies.
*A horizontal organising structure. The inheritance of the anarchist, anticapitalist and environmentalist movements, the horizontal organising structure is now taken as the de facto mode of organisation for popular social movements. The model of the daily general assembly as authorising body is also taken for granted.
*A minimalist programme making no explicit political demands, preferring to lay emphasis on the function of the ‘new space’, the meetings and discussions that happen in it, and the physical fact of occupation as constituting a demand in itself.
*A desire for popular generalisation of the occupation. This distinguishes it from encampments designed to bear witness or shame a space, such as the small line of tents in Parliament Square in London. Thus we see the increasing involvement of organised labour in the Wall Street demonstrations, and the gradual massing of people to the camp.

Minimalism & the 99%
There’s nothing perfect about these hallmarks. I’d obviously choose the side of the occupiers over any rightwing critique, or indeed the lunatic feathering of the chains displayed by the moribund American right. That #OWS has captured the sympathies of many is no doubt due to the totally moribund state of the American left, and demonstrates just how tenuous and easily broken the trance of passivity and inaction is – at least, briefly. But it’s doubtless true that the lack of articulated political, anticapitalist critique or demand has served to build this into a movement where many feel welcome.

Why is this happening? What happens when the fact of economic disparity is so glaringly obvious that it impels action, and yet those impelled to act are emerging from a totalised system in which anticapitalist analysis is non-existent, in which alternative models are held to be either unreal or simply impossible to imagine? Either one’s reaction is to kiss and feather one’s chains, and laud them as the way things should be, or it is to ask the question who is responsible? The question can be answered in two ways, and it depends on whether you see the current situation as capitalism-gone-wrong or capitalism in its full and typical operation. If the former, you will seek for those who have perverted the otherwise perfectly equitable situation, if the latter you will usually answer along the lines that the action of the capitalist class is always to exploit the working class.

It is the former, perversely, I am interested in. These are the people who are responsible for the propagation of the ‘99%’ meme, who have picked it up and run with it. Claiming, in brief, that the super-wealthy 1% have accumulated a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, and have done so by extorting, legally and less legally, the rest of society, it is a complaint that demands some kind of redress. It suggests personal culpability on the part of the 1%. That’s not something I’d seek to diminish – I don’t believe that the super-wealthy are any less conscious of the means by which they appropriate their wealth than the rest of us. But the lure of blaming inequalities on the agency of the 1% (i.e., proposing a critique centered purely around their moral culpability) leads to a convenient elision: that capitalism structures social relations. Capitalism does not have its headquarters on Wall Street. It is not an ogre that dwells behind the crenellations of the Bank of England. In other words, the question of work, of wage and the extraction of value from labour remains crucial.

But these are well-trod criticisms. What interests me is that the minimal programme of 99%ism – that it is so attractive and so immediate a rallying cry. No doubt some of this is to do with the liberating sensation that one doesn’t need a fully fledged theory of political economy to take part in action. It’s diffuse groups with similarly minimal programmes that have been peculiarly successful here, too – especially UKUncut. Like many, I share a disquiet that hesitancy to voice radical critiques of wage labour and capitalist culture (because we’re scared of spooking the horses) means that these minimal programmes will find themselves as acting, essentially, as parliamentary pressure groups, articulating basically cosmetic and reformist demands. The worst outcome of 99%ism could well be a response to one of its structuring logics – that there are some bad people in the 1%, that they have behaved badly, and that once they’re suitably chastised, we can all go home and return to normal.

That’s certainly a threat. There are other ways to branch out from 99%ism, to extend its logic more rigorously, to use it as a basis to insert other conversations – just as here, too, we might suggest that the actions of UKUncut don’t so much demand a return to the status quo ante but demonstrate that even that is no longer recoverable. From there, we might talk about the brief interlude of a postwar social democratic settlement, the incoming realities of resource scarcity, the way that demands from and action by workers won what little we have – and how, in a period of increased precarity and diminished militancy, it’s all vanishing from under our feet.

The unthought & the margins
Finally, briefly, a touch on two things. One is what you might call the ‘unthought’ of the Occupy! movement – that accretion of dogmas, reflexes and given truths that it inherited from the various activist movements that preceded it. Some of these are good things, doubtless (trying not to make meetings full of over-talkative windbags, trying to avoid co-option or recuperation of the movement, trying to ensure people are not stressed to their wits’ ends) others either lacking or simply quixotic consequences of subcultural creeds (prioritising meditation spaces over, say, a crèche) – but they emerge, to a greater or lesser extent, without much articulation of why they’re necessary, as reflexes. An example might be the general assembly, which pops up as the base unit for organisation – but something which can hinder smaller, autonomous action, can lead to a tyranny less of structurelessness than blandness, and a paralysis in which a move to the centre, to the less militant option, is always given priority. These are precisely the problems of the unthought – without clarity about what a general assembly is supposed to decide, supposed to be for, what remains within its purview – it becomes a repository for all of the contentious and irresolvable conflicts of opinion between those who would like a movement to speak with a single voice. No movement does that, of course.

The second thing: margins. The Occupy! movement is in many senses marginal: its recovery of public space as occupied rather than transitory, its critique from the margins of the city and economy, its insistence that it is the return of the marginalised, and the marginal status (student, unemployed, precarious worker) of many of its key actors. One of the key autocritiques that any political movement should generate is about marginality – about the way in which activists, especially, will lock themselves into an ultramarginalised and ultimately ignored subculture. But it is also true that margins replicate widely. We already see cracks and fractions emerging in the discourse of the movement – the tension between, say, anticapitalists and liberals, between advocates of direct action, or confrontation, and ultrapacifists, between communists and hippies. To paper them over is a recipe for disaster. But marginality also configures the protest’s role to the state – and I think here particularly of Wall Street, and of an essay by Félix Guattari, of which I am very fond, called ‘The Proliferation of Margins’, in which he writes:


Integrated world capitalism does not aim at a systematic and generalized repression of the workers, women, youth, minorities… The means of production on which it rests will indeed call for a flexibility in relationships of production and in social relations, and a minimal capacity to adapt to the new forms of sensibility and to the new types of human relationships which are “mutating” here and there (i.e. exploitation by advertising of the “discoveries” of the marginals, relative tolerance with regard to the zones of laissez-faire…) Under these conditions, a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.

It is that last sentence which I think should be understood by those occupying, though it is not simply about physical space, but mental and intellectual orientation as well. Any space in which the state tolerates your presence inevitably doesn’t hurt it that much: we saw what happened when the occupation really did try to take on Wall Street proper. Indeed, you may become a token brandished by liberal democracy to prove its plural tolerance of all kinds of dissent – which ‘you wouldn’t get in Iran’ etc. In these moments, margins are essential. What are the margins you can push at that make the situation less simple to predict, that render it more complex? How do you make the conversations had in Zuccotti park transmit from the outskirts to elsewhere, to those people you work with or study with who wouldn’t have dreamed of coming down to the occupation? How do you avoid recuperation? How do you open up margins everywhere? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I certainly have some ideas. I think we live in times in which more things are suddenly looking rickety and contingent than solid, and I think that’s exciting. I’d like to have that conversation, and I look forward to acting on it. I hope some of you will join me.

Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the cases of Amazon and Apple

October 11, 2011 - 6:55pm
By Wu Ming

[The original version of this essay was published on Giap [3] on 26 September 2011, which means several days before Steve Jobs died. The French version was published on Article XI [2] on the eve of Jobs' death. The piece had already received a lot of attention, backlinks and comments when the news arrived. However, it obviously sky-rocketed to the status of "crucial" text as soon as the media landscape was filled with iGrief, and it kept attracting people when anonymous cultural activists "displaced" the discussion on iGrief by creating the "Steve Workers [4]" persona. The present English translation was done collectively on a Wiki page on Mauro Vanetti [5]'s website. Many thanks to Mauro, SandorKrasna and all the guys who gave a hand. This version retains some additional mini-explanations Wu Ming 1 wrote for the French readers. We also inserted a few additional links that weren't in the original text but came up during the discussion.]

Last week a Pennsylvanian daily newspaper, The Morning Call, published a long and detailed inquiry – entitled Inside Amazon’s Warehouse [6] – on the appalling work conditions at Amazon warehouses in the Lehigh Valley. The article, resulting from months of interviews and direct checks, is being spread around the world and has gotten coverage from the New York Times and other mainstream media. The picture is grim:
- extreme job insecurity, a mood of perpetual blackmailing and lack of rights;
- inhuman work routine, with a pace that can be doubled overnight (from 250 to 500 units per day, with no advance notice), at an internal temperature beyond 40 Celsius that at least in one case reached 45 °C (114 °F);
- disciplinary actions against workers who slow down the pace, or simply faint (a report of the 2nd of June mention the fainting of 15 workers due to heat);
- “exemplary” immediate sacking, with the guilty escorted outside before the eyes of co-workers.
And there is more. Read the whole piece, it is worth it. The key sentence was said by a former Amazon warehouseman: “They’re kiling people mentally and physically“.

Judging by online comments, many people were taken by surprise, finding out for the first time that Amazon is a mega-corporation and Jeff Bezos is a boss who – as bosses customarily do – seeks profits at the expenses of any consideration for dignity, justice, and safety.
As should have been suspected, Amazon’s “miracle” (super-discounts, ultra-quick shipping, “Long Tail”, a seemingly infinite catalogue) is based on the exploitation of workforce under vexatious, dangerous, humiliating conditions. Just like the Walmart “miracle”, Sergio Marchionne’s FIAT “miracle” or any other corporate “miracle” the media have dished up to us in recent years.

What I just wrote should be obvious, but it is not. These revelations are not about a company whatsoever: they are about Amazon, a sort of Big Friendly Giant always portrayed in uncritical, praising and populistic ways —- also in Italy.
The Morning Call broke a charm. Until a few days ago, with a few exceptions, the media (and the customers themselves) took Amazon’s propaganda at face value, without the hint of a doubt. From now on, perhaps there will be more fact-checking, assertions will be properly verified, potential bluffs will be called. With the crisis getting worse and worse, the ranks of skeptics seem to increase.

The problem of multinational corporations being perceived as “less corporate”, “cooler” and ethically — almost spiritually — better than others regards especially companies that are so tightly associated with the Internet, as to be identified with the net itself. Another typical case is Apple.

iPhone, iPad, youDie

Foxconn is a corporation in whose Chinese plants many digital devices are assembled, including iPads, iPhones and iPods. Last year, a wave of suicides among Foxconn workers caused a brief sensation all over the world, before being silenced and covered up. Actually, suicides started in 2007, and the phenomenon is not over (the last confirmed suicide dates to last May; another worker allegedly killed himself in July). On the whole, about twenty employees have committed suicide. Various inquiries and reports cited as likely causes the unbearable work pace, lack of human relationships in the workplace and psychological pressure from the management.
Sometimes things went beyond psychological pressure: on July 16th, 2009, a 25-year-old employee called Sun Danyong [7] was beaten up by a company security squad [not an exceptional situation, judging by this video [8]] and threw himself from a roof right after. He was suspected of the loss or theft of an iPhone prototype.
What kind of solutions did Foxconn implement to prevent further tragic events? Well, they installed anti-suicide nets [9], for example .
[To dig deeper into this subject, I recommend SACOM's report Workers as Machines: Military Management at Foxconn [10], the links collected in the Wikipedia page [11] and the video Deconstructing Foxconn [12]].[1]

Such behind-the-scenes of the Apple world do not receive much attention, compared to news on Steve Jobs’ health, or pseudo-events like the opening on via Rizzoli, downtown Bologna, of the biggest Apple Store in Italy [13]. In that circumstance, many people spent the night in front of the store, in order to be admitted among the first into the Temple. Those people ignore the entanglement of work and death lying upstream of the brand they worship. Putting the largest possible distance between upstream and downstream is the quintessential ideological operation under capitalism.

Fetishism, Subjugation, Liberation

Whenever we talk about the Internet, the “mythological machine” in our discourses — powered by the ideology that we breathe every day, whether we like it or not — reproduces a myth: the idea of technology as an autonomous force, a subject with its own spirit, a reality that evolves on its own, spontaneously and teleologically. Somebody even had the great idea of nominating the internet (which, just like any other infrastructure and network, can be used for every purpose, including war) for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
This rhetoric conceals class, property, and production relations: we can only see their fetishes. Here’s why the pages Karl Marx devoted to commodity fetishism are still useful (my italics):

«There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.»

“Fantastic form of a relation between things”. Like the computers interconnected to form the web. Behind the phantasmagory of the Internet lies a set of definite social relations, and Marx means production relations, exploitation relations.
The net rhetoric hides these relations. It is indeed possible to talk about the Internet for hours, days, months, touching only marginally the issue of who owns it, who is really in control of the nodes, the infrastructure, the hardware. The pyramid of labour — including slave-like labour — incorporated into the devices we use (computers, smartphones, ereaders etc.) and as a consequence into the Internet itself, is even less discussed.
Eveyday, corporations expropriate social wealth on the net, and oppress the working class at each corner of the Earth behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they are considered less “corporate” than others.
Until we realize that Apple is like Monsanto, that Google is like Novartis, that praising a corporation is the most toxic narrative we can choose, whether we are dealing with Google, Fiat, Facebook, Disney or Nestlé—-until we realize all this, we will stay in the net like fish.

[Let me put things clear: I do have a Mac, and I work well with it. I also own an iPod, a smartphone with Android, and a Kindle. My job requires me to know and investigate the ways in which culture is shared and the net is used. As I will explain later, this essay does not focus on the behaviour of the individual consumer -- on which a diverting rhetoric has been built in the latest years -- nor it implies any accusation of moral "incoherence" against him or her. What I am discussing here is the necessity of connecting online activism to the struggles that are taking place upstream, during the material production phase.]

Because of net-fetishism, the spotlight is always on the practices of liberation pervading the Internet — ie the kind of practices we Wu Ming have put time and effort into for twenty years —, which are customarily described as the rule. In this way, people dismiss as exceptions all the practices of subjugation , eg using the net to exploit or underpay intellectual work, to control and arrest people (see what happened after the recent UK riots [14]), to impose new idols and fetishes, to spread the dominant ideology, to enforce the same financial capitalism that’s destroying us.
On the net, the practices of subjugation are the rule as much as the others. In fact, if we want to nitpick, we should consider them the rule more than the others, if we take into account the genesis of the internet, which evolved from ARPAnet, a military computer network.

The question is not whether the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That’s the net’s dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contradiction in process. Capitalism developed itself by setting individuals free from the old feudal bonds, and at the same time by imposing new kinds of subjugation (to the controlled time of the factory, to the production of surplus value etc.) Under capitalism, everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level.

Therefore, the struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations.
If technology could develop outside of these relations, thanks only to its being innovative, the steam engine would have been adopted in the 1st century AD, when Heron of Alexandria invented the aeolipile [15]—-but the antique mode of production did not need machines, since all the necessary workforce was provided by slaves, and nobody could or wanted to imagine any concrete development of that invention.

By fetishising technology as an autonomous force, we remain trapped within the old conceptual frame “Apocalyptic vs. Integrated”. If you make the slightest critical remark about the net, the “Integrated” will mistake you for an “Apocalyptic”, and will accuse you of incoherence and/or obscurantism. The former accusation resounds in such phrases as: ‘Aren’t you using a computer right now?’, ‘Don’t you buy books on Amazon too?’, ‘You own a smartphone too!’, and so on. The latter is expressed in the form of such useless preaches as: ‘Try to picture a world without the Internet…’
On the other hand, any argument about the positive aspects of the net will be welcomed by the “Apocalyptic” as a piece of servile, “Integrated” propaganda.
Let us always remember Heron of Alexandria. His story teaches us that, whenever we talk about technology (and about the Internet in particular), we are actually talking about something else, ie social relations.

Let us ask again then: who are the bosses of the net? And who are the exploited of the Net, and by the Net?
It is not that difficult to find out: it suffices to read the “Terms of service” of the social media you’re using, read the licenses of the software you keep on your computer, digit “Net Neutrality” [16] on a search engine—-and, dulcis in fundo, keep in mind stories like those of Amazon’s warehouses and Foxconn’s factories.
Only in this way, I believe, we will avoid such bullshit as the “Internet for peace” campaign or the horrible, “softly” totalitarian scenario prefigured in Casaleggio & Associati‘s infamous video Gaia: The Future of Politics [17].

Let us not deceive ourselves: only violent conflicts will decide whether the evolution of the net will impose the supremacy of the practices of liberation over those of subjugation, or the other way around.

All the (shitty) work embodied in a tablet

Recently, those who consider Marx’s labour theory of value to be outdated in contemporary capitalism, have been referring to the iPad as an example: the physical work performed by factory workers to assemble a tablet, they explain, is not a big deal, and the tablet’s value depends mainly on the software and apps running on it, therefore on the mental, cognitive work of invention and development. Such work is elusive, unmeasurable in terms hours of work.

This is supposed to question Marx’s idea that — to put it very roughly — the value of a commodity is given by the amount of labour it embodies, or, more accurately, by the work time that is socially necessary to produce it. (By “socially necessary time” Marx means the average time used by the producers of a particular commodity at a given stage of capitalist development).

I’m not a expert of political economy, but they look like two co-existent levels to me. Maybe the labour theory of value is liquidated too hurriedly. I believe that the core of its meaning (its “philosophical” and very concrete kernel) persists even through changing conditions.

Nowadays, work is much more socialised than at Marx’s times and the productive process is far more complex (and capitalism is more conditioned by external, environmental constraints). And yet, those who give this example shorten the cycle and single out the act of assembling an individual iPad. It sounds like a serious methodological mistake to me.
We should take into account the mass of work along the whole productive cycle of an entire batch of tablets (or laptop computers, smartphones, e-readers, whatever). As Tuco correctly said [18] in the discussion thread in which this essay started to take shape:

«One of the essential points is that the whole contraption could never be set to motion to produce one hundred iPads. You’ve got to make one hundred million at least. At first glance it could look like the intellectual work needed to develop the iPad software generates value by itself, irrespective of the rest of the productive cycle. But this would imply that the value generated by this intellectual work is independent from the number of iPads being produced. Actually it’s not like that. Were it not part of a cycle that involves the production with Fordist methods of a hundred million iPads, this intellectual work would generate virtually no value at all.»

Once this point is clarified, in considering how much labour gets embodied in a tablet one can:

1. Start from the retrieval of raw materials like lithium. Without lithium there would be no rechargeable batteries in our gadgets. It does not exist in nature in a “pure” form, and the process to derive it is costly and impacts on the environment. (By the way, 70% of the world reserves of lithium is at the bottom of Bolivian salt lakes, and the Bolivian government has no intention to sell it off. Apart from geopolitical issues, even earthquakes contribute to the mess [19]. This primary stage of the cycle is bound to get more complicated and require more and more labour);

2. Take into account the work (and the harm suffered) by those who work in the petrochemical industry producing the necessary polymers;

3. Take into account the work lacking any safeguard of the toilers assembling the devices (we’ve mentioned above the work conditions at Foxconn);

4. Finally, take into account the (undignified, noxious, almost inhuman) work of those who “dispose” of the laptop’s or tablet’s carcass in some African dump [20]. Being these rapidly obsolescent commodities, and particularly, commodities whose obsolescence is planned, this work is already embodied in them since the beginning of the cycle.

Taking all this into consideration, we will notice that a batch of iPads does indeed embody a large amount of labour (shitty, exploited, underpaid, toxic toil), and a large quantity of working time. Without a doubt, the latter is socially necessary working time: nowadays this is the only way iPads are produced.
Without this work, the applied general intellect that creates and updates software just could not exist. Therefore, it could not produce any value. It takes a tree to make a table, and it takes a factory worker to make a tablet —-and a miner before him, etc. Without factory workers and their labour, no valorisation of digital commodities, no Apple stock quote would be possible. Shareholders and investors trust Apple because it develops, enhances, and sells hardware and gadgets, and sometimes hits big by placing a new cool “jewel” on the market—-and who makes the jewel?

Whether a precise counting in terms of working hours is still possible, I cannot tell. Let me repeat myself: I am not a political economist. What I do know is that when we trash a perfectly working cell phone because a new model can do more things, we’re trashing a good portion of life and toil of a large mass of workers, who are often underpaid and booted in their butt into the bargain.

Collective Intelligence, Invisible Work and Social Media

What I am trying to explain has already been tackled by Marx in the Unpublished Sixth Chapter [21] of the Capital. The excerpt is particularly dense, since it was never edited for publication (my italics and underlining):

«The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances [...]. This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.
The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital.»

In a nutshell, Marx is saying that:

1) the collective, cooperative nature of labour is really subdued (the term is sometimes translated as “subsumed”) under capital—-which means that it’s a specific collective nature that did not exist before capitalism.
The “real submission” of labour under capital is set by Marx against the “formal subsumption”, which was typical of the dawn of capitalism, when the capital used to subdue pre-existent kinds of labour: hand weaving, the processes of agricultural labour, etc.
“Real submission” (or “subsumption”) means that the capital turns into productive force a social cooperation that did not pre-exist it, because workers, salaried labour, machines and new ways of transportation and distribution did not exist before capitalism;

2) the more advanced the productive process (thanks to the application of science and technology), the more mystified the representation of productive cooperation.

Let us look now for some current examples of this formulation: the production of sense and relations on the internet is not considered as productive force of cooperating workers; nor does the dominant ideology allow to recognize the work of a single person. All this production is fraudulently, mythologically attributed to the capital itself, to “entrepreneurial spirit”, to the supposed genius of the capitalist, etc. For instance, it is often said that Facebook exists thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s “insight” blah blah blah.

Such production of sense is often considered, as Marx says, “productive power of labour in so far as [it] is identical with capital”. Let’s translate and apply this principle: the exploitation is hidden behind the appearance of an autonomous, non-subordinate work that relies on independent entrepreneurship and free agreements — even if a significant chunk of web content is produced by the subordinate piecework of several “ghostwriters”, hired by such companies as [22].

Does what Marx called the “Gemeinwesen” – ie the tendency of human beings to cooperate and be part of a community – really exist? Yes, indeed. It is always risky to use such terms, but if there is an “anthropological universal”, it is definitely that. “Companionable animal” (“Compagnevole animale“) is how Dante translates Aristotle’s “zoon politikon” —-and neurosciences are proving that we are wired for the “Gemeinwesen” (the discovery of mirror neurons, etc.).
No mode of production has “subsumed” and “made productive” the human tendency to cooperation with the same strength of capitalism.
The best example of this subdued cooperation — and at the same time of an invisible work that is nor perceived as such — is offered by social media.

I am going to use Facebook as an example. This does not imply that other social media are “less evil”. The reason I’m focusing on Facebook lies in its being the largest, the most yielding and (as illustrated by the latest wave of new options and add-ons [23]) the most enveloping, persuading, and expansionist social networking site on the web. It looks like Facebook wants to engulf the whole net to replace it. It is the social networking site par excellence, and therefore it offers us the clearest example.

Are you one of the 700-and-something million Facebook users? Well, it means that you produce contents for the network every day: any kind of contents, including emotions and relations. You are part of Facebook’s general intellect. To put it short, Facebook exists and works thanks to all the people like you. What is Facebook if not a mass of collective intelligence that is not produced by Zuckerberg & Company, but by users?

In fact, you actually work on Facebook. You do not notice it, but you’re working. You work and do not earn—-others are making money with your work.

What turns out to be useful here is the Marxian concept of “surplus labour”. It is not an abstruse concept: it is the part of work that, albeit producing value, is not converted into salary but in profit for the capitalist, since the latter owns the means of production.
If there is profit, it means that there has been surplus labour. Otherwise, if all the labour were paid according to the value it creates—-well, that would be communism, a society with no classes. It is obvious that the capitalist must pay the workers less than the sum he earns with the sale of commodities. This is what “profit” means—-it means paying workers less than the actual value of their labour.
For several reasons, the capitalist may not be able to sell those commodities and make profits. But this does not mean that the workers have not provided surplus labour. The whole capitalist society is based on surplus value and surplus labour.

Your whole work is surplus work on Facebook, because you are not paid. Everyday Zuckerberg sells your surplus work—-that is to say, he sells your life (your sensitive data, your navigation patterns, etc.) and your relations. He makes several million dollars each day, because he is the owner of the mean of production, and you are not.
Information is a commodity. Knowledge is a commodity. In fact, it is the quintessential commodity in Post-Fordism (or whatever you want to call it). It is a productive force and a commodity at the same time, just like workforce. The Facebook community produces pieces of information (on individual tastes, consumption habits, market trends) that are wrapped up in form of statistics and sold to others and/or used for customising ads and any other kind of offer [24].
Moreover, as a representation of the most extended network of relations on the planet, Facebook itself is a commodity. The company is able to sell information only if, at the same time and incessantly, it keeps selling that particular representation of itself. That representation too is generated by users, but Zuckerberg is the one who pockets the cheque.

Of course, the kind of “work” described above is not comparable for toil and exploitation to the labour mentioned in the early paragraphs. In addition, Facebook users do not form a social class. The point is that we must always consider both the toil at the base of hardware production and the continuous, predatory embezzlement of collective intelligence taking place on the internet. As I wrote above, they are two “co-existent levels”. The production of value depends on both activities, and they should be pictured and analysed together.

There is no “Outside” vs. “Inside”

At this point, should somebody ask me, “Do I have to stay outside social media?”, or “Can I solve the problem by using only free software?”, or even “Should I avoid this or that device?”, I would reply that the question is ill-framed.
Of course, it is a good and right idea to create different, grassroots social media running on free software and not based upon the trade of sensitive data and relations—-but so is also holding a critical, informative presence where the majority of people live and communicate, perhaps trying to devise conflictual ways of using the existing networks.
We’ve suffered for too long the hegemony of an apparatus that “individualises” revolts and struggles, focusing mainly on what is or can be done by the single consumer (a subject who is continuously reproduced by specific social technologies): boycott, critical consumption, radical personal choices, and so on.
Personal choices are important, but:

1. Too often this way of thinking brings to a competiton on who is “purer” and more “coherent”. There will always be someone boasting choices that are more radical than mine: the vegan bashes the vegetarian, the raw fruitarian bashes the vegan, etc. Each one claims to be “further outside”, more “independent” from capital —-a picture that is completely delusional;

2. The consumer is the last ring of the distribution chain, and his or her choices are made at the estuary, not at the source. Perhaps we should recommend more often the reading of a “lesser” text by Marx, the Critique of the Gotha Program, in which he criticised the “vulgar socialism” focused on distribution instead of production.

I have being trying for a while [25] to explain that, in my opinion, spacial metaphors (such as “Inside” and “Outside”) are inadequate, because if the question is, “Where is the outside?”, the answer — or lack thereof — cannot but be paralysing, since the question itself is already paralysing.
It could be more useful to employ, and reason in terms of, temporal images. Focus on time, not space.

It is a question of understanding how much time of life – how many times and how many lives – is stolen by the Capital (stolen stealthily, given that such theft is represented as “the nature of things”), becoming aware of the various forms of exploitation, and therefore struggling inside the relations of production and power by contesting the proprietary structure and the “naturalization” of expropriation, in order to slow down the pace, break off the exploitation, and regain pieces of life.

There is nothing new in what I’m saying: once it was customarily called “class struggle”. In a nutshell: the worker’s and the employer’s interests are different and irreconcilable. Any ideology (whether corporatist, nationalistic, or racist) concealing this difference must be fought against.
Think of the dawn of the labour movement. Proletarians work 12 to 14 hours per day in brutish conditions, and the same conditions are shared by children who hardly see the sun’s light. What will they do? They will struggle. They will struggle until they wring eight-hour working days, pay for the overtime, health assistance, right of organization and strike, laws against child labour… They’ll take back part of their time and claim their dignity, until these achievements will be questioned again and a new struggle will be needed.

To realize that our relation with things is neither neutral nor innocent, to find ideology therein, to acknowledge commodity fetishism—-these are all achievements in themselves: we may still be injured and insulted, but at least we are not “injured, insulted, and loving it“. The injury is still there, but not the mockery of believing to be free within frameworks whereas we’re actually exploited. We should always find the dispositifs that subjugate us, and describe them while finding ways to put them in crisis.
The digital devices we use incorporate exploitation—-let us realise it. The Internet stands upon gigantic pillars of invisible labour—-let’s show it, and let’s show the struggles and the strikes. Although still little debated in the Western world, there are indeed strikes in China [26], and there will be more and more [27].
Whenever a loser becomes a tycoon, we should go and check how many heads he stepped on to get where he is, what work he exploited, how much surplus work he did not reward.
When I talk about “defetishising the Net”, I mean the acquisition of this awareness, which is the requirement to stay “inside and against”, inside in a conflictual way.
If we stay “inside and against” the Net, we may find the way to enter into an alliance with those who are exploited upstream. A worldwide alliance between “digital activists”, cognitive workers, and electronic-industry workers would be the most frightening thing for the bosses of the Internet.
The forms of this alliance, of course, are all to be discovered.

Wu Ming 1
2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the cases of Amazon and Apple"

#1 Comment By a famous historian On October 11, 2011 @ 12:09 am

Thank you – this is not only a brilliant application of Marx but also an excellent critique of the ideology of the net (using a term precisely: ideology, in the Marxian understanding, as a view that does not understand its points of reference are themselves socially, historically constituted).
This is where a critique of the ‘pirate parties’ that have come to prominence in Sweden, Germany etc. needs to start – with their fetishism of the net as a thing in itself, not realising that in a profound sense the net does not exist but needs to be dissolved into the social relations underpinning it.

#2 Comment By sdv_duras On October 11, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

An excellent analysis with a strong critique of network ideologies, nice work

Article printed from Wu Ming Foundation:

URL to article:

URLs in this post:

[1] Italiano:

[2] Français:

[3] Giap:

[4] Steve Workers:

[5] Mauro Vanetti:

[6] Inside Amazon’s Warehouse:,0,7937001,full.story

[7] a 25-year-old employee called Sun Danyong:

[8] judging by this video:

[9] they installed anti-suicide nets:

[10] Workers as Machines: Military Management at Foxconn:

[11] Wikipedia page:

[12] Deconstructing Foxconn:

[13] the biggest Apple Store in Italy:

[14] see what happened after the recent UK riots:

[15] aeolipile:

[16] “Net Neutrality”:

[17] Gaia: The Future of Politics:

[18] As Tuco correctly said:

[19] even earthquakes contribute to the mess:

[20] in some African dump:

[21] Unpublished Sixth Chapter:


[23] as illustrated by the latest wave of new options and add-ons:

[24] used for customising ads and any other kind of offer:

[25] I have being trying for a while:

[26] there are indeed strikes in China:

[27] more and more:

Insect Oriented Media Theory

October 6, 2011 - 12:22pm
By Jennifer Gabrys

Jussi Parikka's recent book Insect Media simultaneously expands the field of media theory and the purview of biopolitics by thinking about the more-than-human development of communication environments. Review by Jennifer Gabrys



Ants and bees, spiders and moths, ticks and praying mantises can be found inhabiting the pages of Jussi Parikka's Insect Media. Arthropods and other bug-like creatures crawl, flap and flutter through this text as provocations for asking how we might read entomology as media theory. On the one hand, this guiding question is informed by the ‘realisation that basically anything can become a medium'; and on the other by the suggestion that the perceptual worlds that exist beyond human sensation and human use of media may begin to influence how we understand media and media theory. We may have grown accustomed to thinking of media as tools of content generation or entertaining diversion, as questions of users and consumer-based subjectivities, but this set of media debates and concerns is sidestepped to consider an alternative view of media as a more-than-human transfer of information that contributes to intensive material and environmental changes. With this material and distributed understanding of media, insects' chemical signals and haptic alerts may be considered media, where exchange of communication and affect is not understood as visual representation (as with human media), but rather as multisensory and more-than-human exchanges. At the same time, the swarming modes of organisation or distributed transfer of messages observed and interpreted within insect worlds may begin to influence new iterations of media technologies, from software to networks - thereby making our media decidedly posthuman in its formation and operation.




Bugs of all types congregate here not as representational ciphers, but rather as assemblages of sensation, event and environment that lead us to consider: what would a thoroughly posthuman media theory involve? As this text is issued through the Posthumanities series edited by Cary Wolfe and published by the University of Minnesota Press, it is a contribution to the various and varied examinations of what posthuman scholarship entails, from the companion canines of Donna Haraway to the Animal Capital of Nicole Shukin. In this context, Parikka mobilises ‘insects-to-think-with' to map out how nonhuman forces, potentialities and modes of sensation both influence the understanding and development of media technologies, and constitute a technics that is beyond the human. Media do not organise in direct or focal relation to ‘Man', in this analysis, but rather are read through swarming, distributed and collective ‘insectlike' agencies and affects.



The scope of Parikka's analysis spans from the 19th century to the cybernetic zoology of post-war experiments with computational organisms to software objects and clones that organise, reproduce and interact within insect-informed topologies. The book's seven chapters chart the enfolding of animality into modern technics, and make a specific case for insects as contributing to a decentred and distributed understanding of media. Parikka begins his analysis in the 19th century with the modern and materialist rise of Darwinian biology and an interest in the coupling of organisms and environments, followed by the emergence of technical media that capture and reproduce sensations often beyond human sense, and an increasing interest in insects as creatures that inhabit distinct perceptual worlds (here informed by the work of Jacob von Uexküll). With these events in mind, Parikka describes insects as creatures that have informed modern technics. But this development has to do with more than a metaphorical inspiration, since insects can be seen as ‘carriers of affects' (a phrase drawn from Uexküll). Insects describe vectors of becoming that are bound up with distinct relations and modes of communicating within and between bodies and environments. Yet these modes of becoming are multiply located, since the swarms, distributions and machine-oriented analyses of insects as automata emerge as much through situated human observations as conjectures about the specific sensory and relational worlds of insects.



Through an analysis of Uexküll's famous ‘conceptual animal', the tick, Parikka demonstrates how the distinct couplings of animals and environments, and the specific perceptual worlds at play in these relations, reshape conventional understandings of space away from a static backdrop and toward lived material relationalities that are composed of dynamic exchanges and modes of communication.1 Perception is not attached to fixed organs or a static reservoir of senses, but rather is a meeting of potentialities and multiple ways of communicating. Such an insight moves beyond phenomenology as a fixed process of subject-object decoding, to suggest that interactions with environments are key to the dynamic unfolding of sensation, and to the possibility for ‘an experimental empiricism'. In this analysis subjects, environments and media technologies are not characterised as fixed reference points or data-gathering centres, but rather as generative exchanges that unsettle a typical understanding of what transpires within communication.



Working across the theoretical contributions of thinkers such as Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Elizabeth Grosz, Sanford Kwinter and Rosi Braidotti, Parikka draws together his insectlike insights with a body of contemporary theory that addresses the dynamic and deterritorialised possibilities for (post-)subjects. Insects, in this respect, can be read ‘as catalysts of relations', where these relations extend not just to nonhumans and their environments, but also to technics and technology, modernity and capitalism. The perceptual worlds at play in this analysis are more than sensory constructs, since they also inform the possibilities of the political and other modes of life. In this respect a biopolitical analysis of insect media is a key aspect of Parikka's project.



In his analysis of biopolitics, some poignant if unresolved questions emerge as to how this analysis of insect modalities can at once describe sites of potential becoming, while at the same time figuring within a contemporary logic of network control and capitalist economies. As Parikka asks,



Where, then, lies the potential radicality of swarms and the ‘insect model' when it has already, from the early days on, been integrated as part of the capitalist and bureaucratic models of creation, connected to Fordist models of labour, disciplinary modes of spatialisation and control, and hierarchical political structurations?



Insect logics of organisation have moved from the ant-like mechanics of the factory to the industrious cities of bees to the swarming patterns of stock markets to the distributed agencies of networks and cyborgian moths implanted with sensors as developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programme.2 Here it is clear there is a careful traverse to be made between the problematic use of ‘biological metaphors' to ‘naturalise' economies and politics, and the incorporation of nonhuman potential as a way to encounter the potentially creative and intensive capacities of other organisms. In order to work through this prickly intersection, where creative potential may also be turned into a capitalist attribute, Parikka engages with Braidotti's suggestion that life is not just an ‘object of power' (or falling within a biopolitical realm, as conventionally understood), but is also a creative force in which technical media are involved, and which also may give rise to new ontologies of life.3 In this analysis, one is reminded of Haraway's cyborgian balancing act, where she attempts to engage at once with the military-industrial complex that was integral to the technologies she discussed, but also seeks to find other possibilities within these new bodies that could not be wholly relegated to stories of control.4



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Image: William Grey Walter performs a cybernetic experiment with environment and perception using mechanical 'brain children'


One wonders then, how the ‘different ecological assemblages' that emerge through an insect media analysis might allow us to ‘summon a different kind of politics' as Parikka suggests, or ‘a politics aiming for the not yet existing in the sphere of bodies, sensations, and ethological relationality.' One way that Parikka approaches this question is by taking up the materiality of media as a site of further exploration. Taking a ‘milieu approach' to media, he suggests that the materiality of media should be rethought through the ‘nonhuman forces' that contribute to media assemblages, and that form distinct modes of materiality. This understanding of milieu and organism draws on Uexküll as well as the ‘cybernetic zoology that can be found in post-war experiments with automated tortoises and other ‘computational organisms' that became the basis for articulating new relations between perception and environmental stimuli, as well as new ontologies of life and information.5 These experiments with feedback are only part of the story, as Parikka suggests, since these insights direct us to move toward a more dynamic conception of environmental relations and, following Guattari, an ‘ecological view of subjectivity.'6



These environmental couplings are an interesting point of conjecture, since organisms and environments could be characterised as much by distributed responsiveness as by glitch and error. Could it be that the possible range of modes of relating could also be expanded, to incorporate not just organisation but also disorganisation and friction. While bugs in the computer-oriented sense of the word emerge in this study, another discussion of bugs can be found in Terry Harpold and Kavita Philip's recounting of the moth found by computer pioneer Grace Hopper in the Mark II electromechanical computer in 1945. A moth, lodged in the circuits of this machine, jammed a relay and was later found and saved in a log book as ‘the first actual case of a bug being found.'7 The moth is rendered as an intrusion into the spaces of information processing - a material body that is incompatible with the operation of this machine, and so becomes more than an entity to think with. While insects as automata may have informed the development of computational logic, here insects as creaturely bodies actually interrupt media technologies. Yet ‘bug' as a term used to describe mechanical error and glitch has been in use since the late 19th century. Given that this term precedes computer culture, it seems such interruptions and material dislocations could be an interesting way to explore the possibilities for other orders of relationality and cross-relationality, where insects are not just rendered into medial form, but also creep into our exchanges and so become a part of their disrepair or misfiring. Insects in this regard are not necessarily carriers of affect, but rather confuse or disrupt circuits through their distinct material inhabitations, thereby circumventing some transmissions while generating possibilities for other exchanges.



In a final sense, the turn toward insect-generated sound art and field recordings is a compelling example of how new modes of listening with bugs allows us to experience these distinct media-insect-environments as more than an apparently inchoate world of sounds. Several of these insect sound projects turn up in the epilogue to Parikka's study, which considers how the recordings of crickets and the microsounds and inaudible registers of hatching larvae enter into new media technical arrangements that give rise to new bodies, materialities and ecologies. Environments are then also dynamic contributors to these alternative renderings of media. Another example of such insect sound art that tracks these changes can be found in Hugh Raffles Insectopedia, a bug compendium also released in 2010 that investigates insects from a cultural historical perspective.8 In the entry, ‘The Sound of Global Warming', Raffles describes an arts-sciences collaboration that has made audible and legible the sound of bark beetles in piñon pine trees. The beetles, which are captured by David Dunn in his The Sound of Light in Trees soundscape project, are recorded along with a host of other insects that make strange sounds normally outside the range of perceptibility. By listening to beetles together with pines, however, distinct changes and activities can be discerned and translated that describe altering environments. Greater drought levels contribute to water stress for the trees, which then become more susceptible to beetle infestation. The media technics of insects signalling and working through their perceptual worlds, the dynamic shifts in environments, and the recording and translating of these sounds into other registers of human sense brings to our attention the ways in which posthuman media may also raise questions about trans-species relationships, changing environments, and the emerging politics, possibilities and obligations that may emerge at these intersections.9


Image: From Karl von Frisch's lecture, 'Decoding the Language of the Bee', University of Munich, 1973


This different type of responsiveness, and the expanded modes of participation made possible within media are a refreshing prospect, where media are not just carriers of versions of ourselves, but are also provocations for more-than-human perceptual relationships. These relationships move beyond the dynamic if closed coupling of organism and environment detailed by Uexküll, and instead suggest possible interactions across species worlds (hinting here at the ethical spaces of posthuman encounters, which are not just or even after the human, but also signal more-than-human residencies in the world). If insect media are not representations of worlds but practices that actively set worlds into motion, then these questions about how to locate and generate more creative counterparts to biopower, which Braidotti identifies and Parikka explores, is a crucial task. In this way, an ‘ecological view of subjectivity' might not orient us toward additional appropriations of insect capacities and attributes for a renewed project of humanism. Instead, it suggests that medial transmissions are sites for forming new collective encounters across bodies and concerns. Such a posthuman view on media and technics is not just a site for articulating existing environmental relations, but also for experimenting with inventive environmental relations through more-than-human perceptual worlds. The ‘intensive capacities' of media, bodies and environments that Parikka suggests allow us to rethink ‘the history of modern media and biopower' might then be understood as offering ways to engage with more-than-human worlds in order to tune more finely our multiple cohabitations.



Jennifer Gabrys is Director of the MA Design + Environment and Senior Lecturer in Design at Goldsmiths, University of London. She recently completed a book on electronic waste, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics , and is currently working on a study of environments and sensing technologies, Program Earth: Environment as Experiment in Sensing Technology.




Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010




1 Jacob von Uexküll, A Foray in the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph D. O'Neil, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010 [1934].

2 Sally Adee, ‘Cyborg Moth Gets a New Radio', IEEE Spectrum, February 2009,

3 Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).

4 Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century', in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

5 The automated or ‘robot tortoises' described here are a reference to William Grey Walter's cybernetic experiments with environment and perception through these particular computational organisms that tested his theories of brain development as a function of ‘nerve complexity'. Nerve complexity for Walter was an indication of the multiple interconnections that allowed for environmental inhabitation and exploration. The automated sensory animals that Walter developed were a way to test responsiveness to environments in order to understand communication as both embodied and embedded in environments. As Parikka writes, ‘This stance implies that communication is actually based in perception, and perception is furthermore conceptualized as an environmental being and a perceptiveness that Walter tried to hardwire into the speculating machines.' The difficulty with hardwiring perceptiveness is that it short-circuits the adaptive and learning-based modalities of environmental perception that Walter hoped to study with the tortoises.

6 Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

7 Terry Harpold and Kavita Philip, ‘Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-Cleanliness, Cyber-Squalor, and the Fantasy-Spaces of Informational Globalization', Postmodern Culture 11, no. 1, 2000,

8 Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia, New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

9 Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environment as Experiment in Sensing Technology (in preparation)