Thursday, July 9, 2009

Common Cause

Michael Hardt

This evening, after a lively day of discussion led by Michael Hardt on questions of biopolitics and “the common” as a theory of subversion in late capitalism, I returned to my lodging to see the following news item on the BBC:Scientists in Newcastle claim to have created human sperm in the laboratory in what they say is a world first.

Blinking at this newsflash, I first observed how absolutely mundane and unexciting this information appeared to me. We live in a world where artificial insemination, cloned sheep, organ donation, and now baby-making-in-a-box are everyday realities -- and we barely flinch. One might ask whether, in fact, the world is so “disenchanted” and rational at all thanks to scientific advancements, or if, indeed, quite the opposite is true.

Much of today’s conversation with Hardt animadverted between divergent perspectives on what exactly can be characterizable as labor in an epoch of derivatives, housing bubbles, Google Docs, image production, and privatized health care. A consistent thread, however, was the indistinguishability of so-called immaterial and material labor. As people remarked using lived-experiences, observations from field research, and theoretical examples, the immaterial always has material effects (or, affects), and the material always has immaterial effects/affects. As Michael Hardt pointed out, paraphrasing Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the logic of capital is such that an object requires a subject, which is to say that a commodity requires, and concomitantly produces, a desiring-machine, to suggest the Deleuzian-materialist conception of the subject in capitalist disciplinary regimes.

Without delving into the rich and provoking details of Hardt and Negri’s work (for further reference, see their books Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004)), I would like to ponder over the concept of “the common” in relation to the “multitude.” As Hardt and Negri have proposed, the multitude is “an internal different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less, indifference) but on what it has in common”[1]. To paraphrase, if I may, the multitude is a social space in which multiplicities of temporalities, or subjectivities, come together as singularities to express their commonalities. The common can be conceived, as I would like to, as the places, behaviours, and relationships in which the multitude expresses and realizes itself. Neither private nor public, but rather simply un-ownable, the common is, some might argue, a utopian space of harmony without uniformity, collaboration without hierarchy, and organization without domination. I say “some might argue” because, I am going to suggest, the common is already in fact in existence, subjectively and materially, though perhaps not ontologically. But first I want to add some thoughts on the concept itself.

I think it helps to consider the “common” in light of one aspect of Marx’s critique of capital, which can be found in Marshall Berman’s reading of Marx’s texts in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982). Marx, Berman explains, predominantly critiques the bourgeousie not for their Faustian development drive so much as their inability to create what Emma Goldman might call "true social wealth"[2]. To elaborate, Marx laments the ineffective and ephemeral nature of relations of capital and its lack of substantial wealth, and the inability of the bourgeousie to recognize their wasted efforts. We might think of the common, then, as a manifestation of reclaiming the privatization of affective labor for social wealth that reflects the immensely productive and creative nature of human capacities.

In my own lived-experiences as a graduate student in a corporatized university and a privatized city, I brush up against, engage with, and sometimes butt heads with the common on a regular basis. Recently in New York City, where I live, I sat in a church in the East Village with a crowd of thirty or so people to listen to a panel of artists and activists discussing their recent work in relation to the impact of the crisis on the city. The presenters were a representative from Right to the City, a NYC-based national organization that was formed in 2007 to influence urban policies through grassroots actions, the Alliance of Residence Theaters, a collective of off-off-Broadway theatre production companies, and Chez Bushwick, a Brooklyn-based research/practice arts collective that employs critical geography techniques to simultaneously investigate gentrification in Brooklyn and bring community residents together to discuss its impacts. What struck me most during this presentation and the debate which followed it was the ways in which class divisions were constantly provoked with respect to the question of art as a social practice. A member of the audience who was also a member of Picture the Homeless, a direct-action homeless advocacy group, voiced the opinion that his constituency (and family) were too worried about putting food in their bellies to care about art or theatre. Additionally, artists present in the audience challenged each others’ various approaches to intervention, mostly on the question of whether artists should use art as a tool for change, or simply behave as concerned neighbours, when engaging with or living within marginalized communities. To me as a participant-observer, the elephant in the room was the tension surrounding the definition of labor, something which was also central to our seminar with Michael Hardt today. Everybody at this event in New York spoke about activism (and art, and art-as-activism) as a form of labor and a tool with which to subvert capital’s regime of exploitation, while simultaneously performing the work of self-care, or desire-fulfilment. Whether in the form of research, direct action, art-making, teaching, or facilitating community dialogues, each person passionately articulated these forms of creative labor and described, and also challenged, the ways such labor was producing changes in consciousness amongst themselves and those they encountered in such work.

In our conversations with Hardt, Kelly Gillespie reflected on the example of the agora, the ancient Greek market place, as an example of a space of the common. Again, my thoughts travelled to New York City, and to a monthly event called “The Really, Really Free Market,” which takes place in a church in lower Manhattan. At this event, hundreds of people gather in a large room to exchange goods, foods, and service, without using any form of currency. Clothes, books, and household items are piled on tables, hot cooked food is served from a supply gathered by “dumpster-diving” rescue teams, and people sit at tables offering free advice, massage, workshops on radical research strategies, and more. Musicians lend their talents, performing for free and setting a jovial atmosphere in which families, students, and activists sift through a wealth of goods. Tables of radical literature are available for the curious visitor who wants to know more about the social ethos and theoretical impetus behind such an event. What draws such big crowds to these events, one might wonder? The space of mingling within difference without having to explicitly adhere to identity politics, or the satisfaction of collecting wonderful books and useful items without grumbling about our declining salaries, or knowing that such a milieu arises out of a recognition that the accursed share of capitalism is something we can take advantage of for the production of a new kind of society?

When I began writing this reflection, I did not intend to dwell at such length in anecdote, and perhaps I have come nowhere near linking my experience to the aforementioned concepts. As it happens, however, the lively seminar discussions today and over the past few days have caused me to ask whether, in fact, so much of the work of the multitude and the creation of the common is already happening and simply goes unrecognized. I would like to suggest, then, that we begin to address such potential discrepancies by working to consider the multitude and the common outside of the means/ends dichotomy which seems to guide social movements so often. By this I simply mean that the contingent, the accidental, the immaterial, and the perplexing, may indeed be the generative, the purposeful, and the strengthening and sustaining forces which constitute a genuine revolution.

Rachel Signer

[1] Multitude, p. 100

[2] See Anarchism and Other Essays

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