Monday, July 12, 2010

The Composition and Decomposition of the Radical Imagination: Remarks on Class Composition

Of all the various concepts, innovations, and interventions of “autonomist Marxism,” perhaps the most well known is the so-called autonomist hypothesis. This idea, first developed by Mario Tronti, and publicized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, fundamentally argued that resistance precedes and prefigures exploitation. Tronti initially proposed this as a way of making sense of capitalism, where it was a kind of Copernican revolution: rather than begin with capital, understanding its structures and demands, the idea was to begin with the working class, with resistance to capital. (Despite the fact the Copernicus, and by extension Kant, is often used to make sense of this transformation, Tronti’s real point of reference, the one that he opens the book with, is the transition from Newton to Einstein, the fixity of laws versus the relativity of forces). Tronti’s thesis, which was first applied to an understanding of capitalism, has been expanded and generalized into an ontological principle. First, by Deleuze and Guattari, who smuggled Tronti’s thesis into the footnotes of A Thousand Plateaus, making it into a general point of opposition between their work and Foucault: “the diagram and abstract machine have lines of flight that are primary, which are not phenomena of resistance or counterattack, but cutting edges of creation…” Hardt and Negri’s reversal, in which the multitude must be seen to be at the basis of empire, follows both Tront’s specific use and Deleuze and Guattari’s general ontology.

What is worth noting is that there is a certain sense in which the Anglo American philosophical scene was particularly ready for this particular Italian import. The question of “resistance” was everywhere, at least everywhere in the Academy, during the last decades of the twentieth century. At graduate seminars and conferences the question was asked, often in response to a discussion of Foucault, “What about resistance?” The autonomist hypothesis arrived, cleansed of its militant origins (Tronti’s book has yet to be translated into English), to answer the question.

There is another element of autonomist thought, which has recently popped up in a few books. First, Franco Berardi has preferred to describe autonomist thought as compositionism. His point, at least in The Soul at Work, is to present this work as a third position, opposed to both Frankfurt School and Sartrean emphasis on alienation and the theoretical anti-humanism of Althusser. Compositionalism treats estrangement as a historical fact, rooted in the contemporary production process, but sees in this not the loss of some “laboring essence” but the positivity of refusal. As Berardi writes:

“Compositionalism overturns the issue implicit in the question of alienation. It is precisely thanks to the radical inhumanity of the workers’ existence that a human collectivity can be founded, a community no longer dependent on capital. It is indeed the estrangement of workers from their labor, the feeling of alienation and its refusal, that are the bases for a human collectivity autonomous from capital.”

The strategy of refusal, and with it the primacy of resistance, has to be placed in relation to the composition, to class composition, constituting a warp and weave of creation and containment.

All of which is something of a preamble to a brief discussion of Stevphen Shukaitis’ Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life.

“While it is difficult to treat class composition analysis as a coherent and unified whole, it is marked by several distinct characteristics. Notable among these is the consideration of class not as an immutable fixed identity, but as a constantly evolving form of social relations expressed through technical and political composition. Technical composition involves particular forms of labor that exist in a historical situation, while political composition expresses the formation of the working class as an evolving historical entity which develops through solidarity created through its struggle against capitalism.”

Shukaitis adds something crucial to this diagram, which makes up the bulk of his examination into the imagination, and that is the aesthetic dimension. Aesthetics is understood here not in the rarefied sense of the beautiful and the sublime, but in the much more fundamental and everyday sense of the way in which people experience, make sense of, and imagine their world. Aesthetics is then closely related to affects in the sense developed by Spinoza and Deleuze. It is necessary to discuss not just the technical composition of labor, the machines and division of labor, and the political compositon, the structures and institutions, from unions to parties, that workers use to express their interests, but also the aesthetic/affective dimension, how people perceive their work and lives, and what they see as possible. (This aesthetic/affective dimension is close to some of the work Rancière has done on the “distribution of the sensible” and Lazzarato’s work on the aesthetics of belief and subjectivity). Shukaitis has some great passages on the aesthetics of punk and the imagination of outer space in Sun Ra and other groups.

Shukaitis’ addition of aesthetics and affects to class composition is an important suggestion, one that opens up new lines of examination. (Berardi’s work on depression and economic uncertainty comes to mind) However, it also would seem to suggest the necessity of moving beyond the standard dualism of composition and decomposition, of the constitution or destruction of the working class. As I have suggested elsewhere on this blog, it is necessary to consider the antagonistic dimensions of class composition, that there are at least two classes being composed. As Shukaitis argues, in a chapter on the politics of precarity, experience and concept of precarity has not produced the same sort of mass mobilization in the US as it has in Europe. This is in part due to political and economic factors: the US has never had some of the same labor protections that are common place in Europe, protections that are themselves the effects of past struggles. However, it also seems that there is a strong aesthetic/affective dimension to this as well. Individualism and self-reliance are so much apart of the American political imaginary, an imaginary that is replenished daily, that it is difficult to imagine how people could ever turn precariousness, the economic norm of temporary and uncertain jobs (jobs which include access to health care and other resources) into the conditions for mobilization.

Thus, it might be possible to argue for a certain predominance of the aesthetic/affective domain in making sense of politics, a dominance that follows the shift in technology, from production to simulation, and labor. It is not enough to ask what are the technological and political conditions of labor, one must also ask what are the affective and aesthetic conditions: how is it experienced and what do people think is possible? How else can one even begin to make sense of a country where the working class fantasizes about tax cuts while losing unemployment benefits?

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