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David Riff Dmitry Vilensky

From Communism to Commons? /// David Riff and Dmitry Vilensky




First published at Third Text, 2009 and Maska Magazine (short version)


Obstacles to the Hypothesis of Communism

DR: What does it mean today to talk about the ‘communist imaginary’? What is it to ‘imagine communism’? Is it some revenge fantasy with a happy ending; Latin American tanks knocking down prefabs in the American South West? Is it the memory of the Fordist ‘worker’s state’ in the biomechanics of the Moscow Metro? Is it when we collectively invent practices that make temporary worlds beyond private property? Or is it when we imagine that the world is still moving toward the total emancipation of the socialized human senses, conscious species being, that reveals itself in the collaboration of a ‘free community of producers’? Can we imagine a communist government that conceives of governmentality as withering away, made up of our own incorruptible comrades? Or are we just imagining things? Does all of what I have just written sound absurd? That doubt is always there. Maybe its just idealism… If you consider yourself a Marxist, this is hell: banished to utopia. I’m not saying that we should immediately give up ‘imagining communism,’ but maybe we should try to be more “scientific” in an old-fashioned Marxist way, namely by setting out a central hypothesis, and then by proving that hypothesis in practice.

DV: It’s funny, but when I was studying at the university we were all obliged to take a yearlong course in ‘scientific communism’. Can you imagine this now? Of course, we played all kinds of tricks to escape this dull course at any price. Now things are quite different for me, and I’ve left that traumatic experience behind. I think that it definitely makes sense to keep on thinking the ‘hypothesis of communism,’ a term Alain Badiou has been using, and I think it’s the right place to start. I too would much prefer this term to the ‘communist imaginary,’ which seems so abstract. You can see it right away: we’re talking about two different intellectual patterns that are always actualized differently. One is practical – a hypothesis you set out to prove; the other is speculation that has no consequences. So what is this ‘communist hypothesis’? Let’s look at Badiou’s definition:

In its generic sense given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labor to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labor. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away. [1]

 

DV: What does it mean today to talk about the ‘communist imaginary’? What is it to ‘imagine communism’? Is it some revenge fantasy with a happy ending; Latin American tanks knocking down prefabs in the American South West? Is it the memory of the Fordist ‘worker’s state’ in the biomechanics of the Moscow Metro? Is it when we collectively invent practices that make temporary worlds beyond private property? Or is it when we imagine that the world is still moving toward the total emancipation of the socialized human senses, conscious species being, that reveals itself in the collaboration of a ‘free community of producers’? Can we imagine a communist government that conceives of governmentality as withering away, made up of our own incorruptible comrades? Or are we just imagining things? Does all of what I have just written sound absurd? That doubt is always there. Maybe its just idealism… If you consider yourself a Marxist, this is hell: banished to utopia. I’m not saying that we should immediately give up ‘imagining communism,’ but maybe we should try to be more “scientific” in an old-fashioned Marxist way, namely by setting out a central hypothesis, and then by proving that hypothesis in practice. It’s funny, but when I was studying at the university we were all obliged to take a yearlong course in ‘scientific communism’. Can you imagine this now? Of course, we played all kinds of tricks to escape this dull course at any price. Now things are quite different for me, and I’ve left that traumatic experience behind. I think that it definitely makes sense to keep on thinking the ‘hypothesis of communism,’ a term Alain Badiou has been using, and I think it’s the right place to start. I too would much prefer this term to the ‘communist imaginary,’ which seems so abstract. You can see it right away: we’re talking about two different intellectual patterns that are always actualized differently. One is practical – a hypothesis you set out to prove; the other is speculation that has no consequences. So what is this ‘communist hypothesis’? Let’s look at Badiou’s definition: given in its canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labor to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labor. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.

To me, that doesn’t sound absurd at all, and I see no intellectual problems with still believing in the validity of this statement. But on the level of practice, the realization of the ‘hypothesis of communism’ encounters many obstacles at this particular historical moment as well, obstacles that we should talk about.

DR: For me, one of the most important of these obstacles is the structure of neo-capitalism itself. The world is unconsciously moving toward communism, but capital consciously subsumes the new commons that arise in this movement. There are many experimental practices that either found upon the ‘hypothesis of communism’ or confirm its truth; not only micro-communities, but entire social networks make and exchange things beyond the capitalist relations of production. But at the same time, today’s entrepreneurs are good at figuring out ways of subsuming these alternatives as new fringe markets and tapping into their creative potential, mining it as a “natural resource.” This recreates the primal scene of primitive accumulation, or accumulation by expropriation: common knowledge – created together politically without a profit motive in mind – is subjected to a new enclosures movement, divvied up and rendered profitable. To be paranoid, we could even say that neo-liberalism is all about allowing commons to arise for the sole purpose of their subsequent economic privatization. Look at how it happens with all the online communities and social sites… They are sites of class struggle, and the ‘community of free producers’ is on the losing end.

DV: I agree that the situation is tough. There is a growing feeling of that the space in which one could move is shrinking; the ‘wild west’ is gone and the same is true of the ‘wild east’. The colonization of life by capital has reached the point of totality, or bad totality. But at the same time, the structure you describe creates material conditions that no one could imagine 60 years ago. We might now be closer to whatever is called ‘communism’ than ever before. As Paolo Virno has noted, post-Fordist societies seem to fulfill the most typical demands of communism: abolition of work, dissolution of the State etc. But the material base for this ‘communism of capital’ is the exploitation of the common, either native or outsourced. Or, to put it more simply, there has been incredible technical and political progress since the Second World War, and today the world is a better place to live not just for a few rich people but for the masses too. Can you imagine the position of a communist in the 1930s after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Or, in the 1950s in the US, at the time of McCarthy? Or even in the early 1990s? Even in late Soviet Union the word ‘communism’ was treated as a bad joke by most of the population. I think it was much harder to pursue the ‘hypothesis of communism’ then than today.

DR: Yes, but there was such a thing as ‘Fordist fidelity.’ As you know, my grandparents were communists and followed exactly the trajectory you just mentioned. The most impressive thing about them was that this fidelity somehow survived all the disappointments, repressions and internalizations, and not just as ‘weak messianism.’ It was a mixture of a Stakhanovite work ethic and self-ironic courage that kept them ‘hypothesizing.’ My grandfather was only active politically until 1944, but even afterward, very little changed in his politics. When my grandmother died, he was already 97, and my relatives moved him out to Phoenix, Arizona. Here, they pumped him full of Xanax and moved him into an old age home, where he forgot how to speak. I don’t want to be melodramatic but there was something heartrending about that visit to Phoenix, the embodiment of post-Fordist economy: no natural resources, no production of goods, limited, artificial agriculture, and a huge tourist and old age industry, and most importantly, real estate. There is WiFi everywhere, everything is outsourced, everyone works and performs in the same shopping mall, where we have those ‘material conditions’ you are talking about above. Yet class consciousness, fidelity, courage are reduced to opacity and silence, just like the Spanish-speaking migrants, carefully isolated from the universalized petit-bourgeoisie everyday in barrios and utilized as silently smiling service personnel. But when I came out there to visit my grandfather and gave him copies of Chto delat, we started talking about the world of commodities, and he could still quote Capital verbatim. Now, you can say that all of this is very personal, but it really faced me with this question: isn’t that ‘communism of capital’ – which you can see out in Phoenix, Arizona – really something more monstrous than we usually think? Somehow that singular figure of the Fordist ‘organic intellectual’ and his communist fidelity is generalized and redistributed back into the mode of production as the figure of the immaterial worker, who may be a Stakhanovite like my grandfather and probably has a sense of humour too, but no longer speaks the language of class consciousness, and if so, only speaks it silently, without knowing. Chances are, our immaterial worker will be lulled into comfort by all those joys of cultivated, creative consumption, and totally oblivious to any ideas of communism, ideas that might nevertheless be playing out somewhere in the back of his or her mind.

DV: We are living in a time of a paradox: on one hand the production of the ‘common’ is proliferating but at the same time the commons are shrinking. The main issue is still how people – within micro-communities and society at large – manage to redistribute the incredible surplus value of their living labour, that is, how to distribute it for the people and not for the profit of the few. Notice how few people would call themselves communists, but there are many ‘commonists’; one of the main struggles today is the fight over the commons. In art and culture, and also in attempts to save the environment, this struggle is very obvious. All speculations around the democratization of cultural production and the transformation of public sphere are about this struggle, and Chto delat is very much a part of that.

DR: Ok, I agree that ‘commonism’ is an important and tangible force, and I am always on the side of free, accessible, commonly shared and commonly created culture, and commonly shared material resources. But it is not enough to simply ‘join the camp of the oppressed’ by manifesting solidarity. You have to actually do something. To do something, you have the option of either inventing your own collective practice, or to work in the existing institutions, whose own practices contradict your own. But once you are either here or there, you find that you have been installed as a readymade on a certain cultural field, and that you have been given a set of privileges, which even include free collaboration and political radicalism, for example. Society is outsourcing its politics to art, and that has become extremely profitable. The challenge is to work through that reification for a common cause, which seems a lot weaker today, at least on a conscious level. Yet as we’ve been writing this text, there’s been a serious crisis at the heart of capitalism, and post-Fordist places like Phoenix Arizona seem doomed, and maybe it also spells death to all our post-Fordist life projects. I wonder whether it will finally wake people up, or whether it will just add a nightmarish touch to its self-perpetuating dream-world, where life is a golden cage. I am placing my bets on the return of some kind of class-consciousness, and a return of real class struggle. But will our practices be a part of that? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question of when they finally open the doors of our respective golden cages to fire us.

DV: There are two ways of thinking about all the complexity we’ve been talking about: one is to freeze up in a pose of permanent mourning, which means that you won’t be able to leave the golden cage even when they do finally open the door. Any smart analysis of the current situation makes that position very plausible. But it is also very easy to prove exactly the opposite: there are plenty of possibilities for actualizing political potentialities in different forms of action, just as there are still many zones still immanently non-colonisable by capital. You know that I am more on the side of this position. The most important practice is to break out of the golden cage. This is where resistance begins, and I do not care so much if capital can appropriate that resistance or not. The most important thing is permanently to transcend the comfortable limitations of your practices, in your everyday existence. To do something that is not accepted at this current moment. And if these practices become too acceptable, you will need to start to do something else that is not subject to the logic of profit. We need to reaffirm that culture is not just a source of profit; it is based on a basic characteristic of humans, the ability to engage in free creation. To be able to create something new and share it with people without pursuing any utilitarian logic, this is the biggest pleasure of all. And it’s what communism is all about.

DR: Glorious words!But also very romantic. You are talking about surplus creativity, and excess that cannot be alienated, and I immediately think of Bataille. But as appealing as it might be, it sounds a little like you’re idealizing creativity. Let’s try to be more precise. The hypothesis of communism – understood as a temporality that is not ‘being for the rich’ – is all about creating (and not just imagining) situations in which some of Marx’s arguments about integral personalities that plow the fields before breakfast and criticize after dinner actually come true, where time, not surplus labour, is wealth. In such ‘free times’ there is a possibility to believe in ideas like Beuys’ ‘Jeder Mensch – ein Kuenstler.’ Unfortunately, we live in a world where that idea often becomes a farce. What is the value of ‘free creativity’ in the time of ‘creative capital’ accumulated with the help of a ‘creative class’?

DV: Of course, capital very much proliferates on this ‘free creativity’ but at the same time, it is always trying to hamper people’s creative impulses, to tame people’s desires, and to make them stupid and one-sided. ‘Free creativity’ is a celebration of the human vocation, but ‘creative capital’ is the opposite because it dooms so many people to a miserable, unhappy life. But you are right and this conflict cannot be resolved within capitalist society. That’s why there will be always attempts to change society. I think that even nowadays, there are a great number of examples of how people experiment with their lives, stepping beyond all the social limitations and inventing something new. This is why vernacular culture is so exciting; it cannot be totally canalized by capital because capitalism does not need it. Look how many practices are not in demand, how many artworks, ideas and so on, are dying unrealized because they do not fit into the logic of profit.

DR: Or maybe that’s just a reserve army of labour for the creative class, a palace of projects? It’s so obvious that under capitalism, not everyone is an artist; ‘private property has made us stupid and one-sided.’ Remember how you and I started working together? We first met at a huge, shitty site-specific group exhibition in Berlin 2003, based on the logic of ‘Jeder Mensch – ein Kuenstler.’ Held in a bunker, that show looked like bedlam for the art world’s Lumpen; it was an expression of Berlin’s incredible trash subculture, with its feel-good relational aesthetics, cooking events, transgressive performances and collective excursions. And you’re right; a lot of this stuff is ‘unwanted.’ But what happens to all that ‘unwanted’ art, all those performances that nobody wants to see, all those social projects nobody wants to take part in, all those paintings nobody wants to look at, when you place them into one location as the backdrop to feel-good community get-togethers? They become part of a new commodity, a community brand, and like at that show in Berlin, you can charge admissions at the door. That, in turn, creates a very uncreative attitude of ‘everything goes (as long as it’s fun),’ and rests upon a clearly vertical organizational form, where an undifferentiated mass of artists (whose work essentially become equivalent to one another) is ‘coordinated’ by a organizational board of ‘smart’ curatorial-meta-artistic entrepreneurs. That, to me, takes us far away from any communist perspectives. That’s the zero-point of ‘the communism of capital.’

DV: I think we need to differentiate between practices that are totally based on profit logic even though they’re not profitable, and genuinely resistant practices. The activities that you describe are examples of start-up projects in which communities get to together to grasp their piece of the same capitalist cake – and that cake is limited, so that everyone is competing. They are definitely not challenging the established order; worse yet, most of these secondhand relational or post-relational activities very much affirm the system and, yes, they do form ‘a reserve army of labour,’ always ready to take up any places at the post-Fordist assembly line. But for me, the most important thing is that there are still a few practices that are not based on profit logic. The initiators of these practices aren’t trying to stand in line and do not care about their symbolic weight in the existing system – they are trying to change the rules and change the system, create their own value. In Marx’s terms, I would say that they are concerned primarily with use value; they aim at changing people’s consciousness. So I always hope that we are living at a moment when a kind of ‘parallel art society’ is taking shape, making the difference between us and them plain as day. If the market can commodify these intentions (sell books by Badiou, for example or integrate our piece into another more or less senseless show), this is not a problem of these practices, but a problem of the market economy, where everything can be mediated through money. Anything can be bought or sold, even communism. But I strongly object to mixing up these totally different processes. As we know from history, revolutions need money, but it is very important how one uses this money and to what ends. Let’s look at the modest example of our newspaper. We (sometimes) take money from the art system, produce some knowledge and then through the publication of our free newspaper, we redistribute it outside the conventional space of art and academia. That’s not too much but at least something. So, we must insist on separation. Otherwise, I hear in your convictions a general capitalist cynicism: whatever one does it is always about making profit! Sorry, I have been hearing this too much and it’s a dead end of all possible discussions. There is no way of escaping the ‘wrong whole’; nothing can be done. And what? The point is that there is ALWAYS a way out and one should search for it.

What is to be done?

DR: Well, I think you may be moralizing a bit, though I agree that the potential of exchange value and use value should be separated. So, ok let’s focus on what one can do. One can make a newspaper, for example, in search of a genuinely resistant practice not based on profit logic, as you put it. I mean, we started working from exactly that hypothesis. We were frustrated with how depoliticized amateur creativity and DYI art had become, and how they are being instrumentalized in the logic we’ve sketched above. We wanted to break that structure. Working in a small group seemed like the best material base for creating a ‘community of free producers’ with genuinely egalitarian social relations. If you remember, it was all about eliminating alienating divisions of labour. Maybe we can talk about how we tried to do that in our first six issues: about the rendering-transparent of philosophy and art, that came from certain intensity of shared work: massive ingestions of articles read online, hours of re-reading the classics of Marxism and anarchism, entire days of intensive discussion.

DV: I think that the greatest moment of the relations that were developed inside Chto Delat were when all of us became artists, but it happened very rarely, unfortunately. In the first six issues, the philosophers were participating in art works and actions, writing manifestoes and plays. They were acting as artists. And the artists were learning a lot about philosophy.

DR: And the strange thing is that this happened through creative work, and not just mutual consumption. Our community wasn’t some vague philosophical ‘inoperativity’. We were working together. But at the same time, Chto delat came out of hypothesizing something that would resemble neither the corporate ‘team’ nor the more precarious media-collective artist startup, but a platform that would allow us to produce like real Stakhonivites, but according to a different set of collaborative rules.

DV: Yes, but then, at some point, we went into a kind of crisis, which I would see it now is actually about the growing specialization of our intellectuals. At the moment when the artists of Chto Delat are experimenting with texts, research, films, social organizational practices, and activism more and more outside the limits of the conventional art world (at least in Russia), the intellectuals have retreated (from my point of view) back onto the conventional terrain of academic field and (as in your case) to journalism. And there, they are exposed to all the pressures of exploitation and lack the time to do anything outside their job. It becomes very difficult to work together. Just look at how long it took us to write this text. The kind of disciplinary lifestyle that you are all opting for involves a strong limitation on the everyday, and suddenly, you lack any chance of traveling and structuring your own time…This disciplinary dead-end is a total contradiction of communism, whose anticipations were always very much embedded into the imagination of a society where everyone has the time to be an artist-intellectual. Which would mean the end of art as a separate discipline altogether.

DR: Ok. But let’s be honest. The strength of the art market over the last years has caused a whole new wave of community-dissolutions, gentrifications, and expropriations. In praxis neoliberal ideology of creative capitalism brings on a strict division of labour, in which the artists/philosopher/critic reasserts him- or herself as a towering figure, ensconced in the regalia of his profession, more intellectual than general intellect, more creative than creative capitalism. We are all more or less hostage to that differentiation, even if we resist it.

DV: But our harsh rejection of the new Russian cultural industry immediately brought us out of a comfort zone of (sub)cultural self-indulgence, and that’s been clear from the beginning. The local art community thinks that we are making our newspaper to get grants. Also, they are all sure that what we do in art is not art and that is OK. Many people feel very comfortable inside the art system and enjoy it. But some (unfortunately a few) feel nothing but scorn toward those vernissage crowds, the glossy faces of dealers and gallery owners and so on. And those who enjoy such a convivial atmosphere feel your scorn and pay you back with hate, and that’s that. I do not really want to share anything with these cultural producers. There is nothing we have in common.And in the last five years of our collective artistic ‘career’, at any our openings everywhere, I have not seen a single art dealer, but really just heaps of activists, NGO people, sociologists, intellectuals, freaks, museum people. And this is how it should be.

Exodus

DR: This all sounds like preparation for an almost religious rhetoric of exodus…

DV: Well, on the one hand, I think the idea of exodus is quite inspiring, and is a key moment; this is a separation you have to make. Maybe it comes close to the famous anarchist slogan ‘never work,’ just do just your own collective stuff. But you have to be ready to be consciously poor, to live on a certain minimum. So exodus is more about carefully choosing the way in which your everyday is structured. There’s this really appropriate slogan that the Spanish anarchist Durruti thought up in these way: ‘We carry a new world here, in our hearts. This means we build a new world every day, in our relationships with each other, in our daily practices’ – and I think it does not matter how naïve this sounds, it has some truth. I have always thought that it’s important to make that gesture. I have a problem with the concept too, even if it always sounds inspiring. Most importantly because it undermines the conflictual dialectical approach to reality and I, frankly, stay a materialist dialectician. Actually our film on Brecht, Angry Sandwichpeople, or in Praise of Dialectic was an attempt to create a sort of visual choreography of how this dialectic of entrance and exodus would work.One thing you can really see in this piece is how the efficiency of a practice is very much dependant on the critical mass of people who are taking part in it, and how they come together or fall apart. For me, it is still not clear how the exodus is organised, who is that subject who determines the way to move and where and so on, and these are rather traditional political questions.

Class Composition and Organizational Form

DR: What seems so irritating to me is that a gesture of definite negation or exodus does not automatically mean that we’ve joined the community of the oppressed by default. After all, it’s one thing to be ‘marginal’ or unwanted in an affluent society, and another thing to really be a migrant worker that makes all that affluence run. There seems to be a huge gulf between the two. If you live as a marginal person in an affluent society – an experience of most cultural producers – you have ways of surviving by default, due to a global division of labour; you are privileged, and it takes an effort to overcome that privilege. You can band together with your comrades, members of the same fan club (even if it’s a communist fan club), but can you really say that you have nothing to lose? The point would be to defend a common class struggle, one that would bridge the difference between you and the Chinese worker. And somehow we can’t do that today.

DV: You know, for me, that is, really the main problem in making the hypothesis of communism, the biggest obstacle. It’s the issue of class and class struggle. You keep mentioning it as though it’s something obvious, but I don’t know exactly what it really means today. Who is oppressed today in a comparable degree with notorious ‘nothing to lose’? Everybody has something to lose. There are still many forms of resistance in the world but are they class struggles? Or are they something else? You do not need to imagine communism to defend your community garden or to fight pollution. And you can do any of that and have rather moderate political views with very modest claims. Or, as in Russia, you could be wildly anti-communist and nationalist. Where the hell is our class, the liberals say? And sometimes, I agree with them. We need to prove again the validity of class as a depository of emancipative consciousness. But isn’t the concept of multitude a class concept too? In how far does the communist imaginary, or whatever we call it, depend on existing class struggles? Should it be embedded into the consciousness of a class? That to me really is a central obstacle to thinking.

DR: I think we should make a clear differentiation between class-consciousness and unconscious struggles as an objective, seemingly inevitable historical force that can be overcome. If class-conscious struggle is everything, then there is little hope. But on the unconscious level, there is always a struggle between the dominant class (i.e. the rich and powerful) and their administrators on the one hand, and the dominated, expropriated, coerced masses of ‘the people’ on the other. Only it’s a struggle that the oppressed are always losing by recognizing the power of their masters. That same old struggle produces what Benjamin calls weak messianism, that secret ‘principle of hope’ that shines through all the defeats now has the tendency to stay unconscious and to take on a religious form, which, in turn, is not only ideological, but also organizational. Obviously, I’m not just talking about Hezbollah, but also about our own sectarian tendencies as ‘micro-communists.’It’s that old pulse of a heartless world…It’s the lure of religion.

DV: How to unite different struggles is the main issue. If you don’t do that, it really is just a cult or religion of a little social group, all this talk about communism. Bridging different struggles is what the idea of constructing the ‘movements of movements’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s was all about, and it would be interesting to analyze what exactly went wrong and why that is stagnating. You explain it by the resistant community’s inclusion and subsuming under capital, but I think there’s more to it, and we have to look at the bigger picture. There is a big discussion about what Maurizio Lazzarato once formulated as ‘the political form of coordination’. [1] I think that the biggest problem right now is that the left is refusing to problematize the role of external agency in the struggle. Before, all revolutionary theory was based on the concept of the Party and its relations to the spontaneity of mass movement. But since 1968, such organs are immediately are under suspicion of manipulating popular movements and subjecting them to authoritarian control.

DR: I think it’s very important today to remember Marx’s famous statement from a letter to Arnold Ruge: ‘We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.’ What Marx implies here is a kind of mimetic structure: the deterritorialized, formerly bourgeois intellectuals ‘show the world what it is really fighting for’ by publishing the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, or the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and these projects becomes spaces for self-clarification and the ruthless criticism of everything under the sun, including the very preconditions of thought. The idea is that the workers will see this exterior reflection and identify with it. Lenin, in turn, mimicked this original practice very effectively, renewing the discussion of the intellectuals’ embeddedness, and presenting it as a productive paradox. You find a more mediated version of the same problem in Gramsci’s figure of the ‘organic intellectual,’ whose intuitive knowledge then self-organizes around collective activities such as publishing newspapers. The newspaper (the artwork) is not only an agitator, but also a collective organizer. The editorial trains organic intellectuals to formulate a collective practice to refine, correct, and disseminate political knowledge. But today, this Fordist form looks like a commercial startup, and self-clarification is a far more dialectical and negative process. Think back to our debates. There was never a ‘centralism’ of ideology or form, but a constant agony of trying to define the object of criticism and the tools of the criticism, of switching positions, and refusing to settle into one collective mode of truth production. Our inner group debates were always quite intense, even a little crazy, but our supposition was that this debate was a mimesis of where the world was moving, and that this mimesis is where politics begins.

DV: Well, I think what you say about mimesis makes sense. Our practices must imitate and intervene in a very complicated world with a very mixed composition. This is why I very much admire Gerald Raunig’s concepts of transversality and concatenation, in which struggles cross one another on different lines of flight. I would talk about constructing the composition of many elements, and this is what good organization really is. Capital can easily grab parts of that composition, but it can hardly deal with the whole. We must work in all fields at once. If you’re smart and quick, even the most inclusive instance has problems catching you – so inside one organization, there must be different activities – intellectual, practical, militant, and so on.

DR: But in all these crossings over, there is a lot of what the political scientist Chantal Mouffe calls ‘agonism.’ There is all this translation going on, and a lot of the time, it’s very conflictual. It’s not an antagonism between two separate positions, but a continual crossing over and concatention of interests, a kind of agony. And it’s very hard to organize that process. Imagine a room full of people talking all at once. Strangely, as our experience has shown, a lack of self-discipline leads to a breakdown, after which people return to academic disciplinary structures. After traversing for some period of time, the mobilization fails and is aestheticized. The loss of impetus in the ‘movement of movements’ could be chalked up to that.

Discipline, asceticism, and the avant-garde

DV: Yes, it is a great pity that the word discipline today sounds so terrible for any new hedonist left. What? Discipline? Asceticism? As soon as you mention it, you’re Leninist, a Trotskyite, or whatever. But let’s look about the common misunderstanding of asceticism.Most people think that it is something that prevents you from taking joy from life -that you have to torture your body, and so on. It’s funny that the main character of the novel What is to be done by Nikolai Chernyshevsky is the ascetic Rachmetov. By looking at this type, we can understand that asceticism is something different; it is about excess, abundance of force and joy, through the subject permanently overcoming his or her borders. Asceticism is a form of a discipline that helps you to realize tasks, a concentration and enjoyment of strength and neither passivity nor resignation. So I would say that it does not contradict the discourse of desire, but brings it to another, more radical and sophisticated level. But very few people are ready to think about it. In short, I absolutely agree with Badiou regarding the new left politics and movement when he said: ‘The solution of the problem in the long term will be the invention of a new form of immanent discipline in the popular camp. That will be the end of the long weakness of the popular camp after the success — but also the failure — of the form of the party’. [2]That’s why I still have an idea that it would have sense to re-think the possibilities of a new avant-garde. And get rid of comfortable notions of political art. What do you think about the ‘prevailing debate on the avant-garde’ that we traced recently in our publication? And how does it relate to the kind of immanent discipline that Badiou is talking about?

DR: Now, here, so close to the end is where our discussion can really get interesting. Like you I am frustrated with the hedonist left and this notion from Deleuze and De Certeau that resistance is limited to the invention of little games to flee from power relations. But in how far should asceticism and a ‘vow of poverty’ be part of an avant-garde ethic? I think here, our positions are quite different. To simply dismiss the ‘culinary pleasures’ of art, even as posed by neo-capitalist entrepreneurs, simply sounds to me like a quasi-modernist repetition of an iconoclastic gesture. I think we are at a completely different point in history, and we can’t just uncritically take over the avant-garde asceticism of form, for example, or its productionist work ethic, albeit for a ‘revolutionary cause.’ Too much has changed since then, and too much has become clear about the avant-garde and its own joys, joys that survive the eroding context. Look at Brecht, who has inspired your ‘anti-culinary rhetoric.’ The more we find out about his work, the more we see that he was certainly not an ascetic, he was great cook himself, spicing and dicing every play with smaller and larger estrangements, and creating a dramatic juxtaposition of easily digestible ingredients (to the point of populism) and a gnarly, ingrown ‘people’s language’. Or think of Dziga Vertov, whose films, as we have observed together, are fountains of desire.

DV: You misunderstood me about asceticism. I am not talking about the reduction of desire. For me, asceticism is a special discipline that derives from the fullness of life. What you say about Brecht and Vertov is true, but I think that we can hardly describe it as culinary – for me it is more about the visualisation of radically new forms of seeing and describing the world and in this sense it is a direct anticipation of new forms of life to come, very close to the communist imaginary.

DR: Yes, but I think you shouldn’t be so exclusive on what kind of art to enjoy. I think it is very important to focus on aesthetic enjoyment in general, and its capacity for liberating leisure time from the grasp of consumerist stupidity, expanding people’s horizons toward a conception of communism that is wealth, and not poverty. And please don’t misunderstand this as a rosy-eyed ‘art appreciation’ seminar or an apology for the new universal museums currently being opened by the hyper-bourgeoisie. Instead, I think it could be very important if the counter-project were an alternate view of the classics of art-history, an alternate view of the ‘culinary,’ and one that isn’t as subculturally limited as now. And the historical avant-garde should be included in that. Regarding the classics, I’m thinking of the introductory chapter to Peter Weiss’ Aesthetics of Resistance, where a group of young communists gaze at the Pergamon Altar and discuss its meaning; they are in hiding in the Third Reich, even dressed up in Hitler Youth uniforms to avoid suspicion. And their gaze into the classics is radicalized by history, as it were, and they find there, in the classics, a field of resistance. Today, we can re-imagine that image from Peter Weiss as a theft of time, a construction of a radically different temporality within the time of consumption, perhaps as something very social and anti-social at once, in an Adornian sense. And we need to focus on that experience more closely.

DV: Actually I very much agree with what you said here. But the pleasure of contacting the classics needs a very special collective discipline, and it also needs time for contemplation and thinking. And this issue brings us to the topic of ‘communist education’. What was the most important thing in the art of the previous epoch? – the incredible feeling of harmony. And this has direct a relation to the communist imaginary: the anticipation of a world and subject that can live in harmony with the world. The main crime that capitalism has perpetrated against humanity is the robbery of this harmony. So the appeal to classic values as culmination of harmonious things is really important. But it does not help too much when you analyze art under capitalism. Here we should find another mode of striving for harmony. I mean that we can’t pretend that nothing has changed. The whole function of art changed drastically and it will be silly to compare the classics with the contemporary and the emancipatory enjoyment that we can derive from art has also shifted to another zone. I believe that there is a general line that reveals the generic emancipative effect of true art. Art has lost its immediacy or ‘striking effect’ that grabs you emotionally. You can reach the same effect only through the careful reading of the whole composition of creation (images, text, position of the author and so on), as a big work. This doesn’t mean, however, that art rejects involving the viewer aesthetically and emotionally. This rejection is sometimes a serious deficiency in many contemporary works. The tradition of political art has evolved a whole set of means for exerting ideo-aesthetic pleasures – suffice it to say, the alienation effect. The process of ‘making art politically’, leads to the construction of a multilayered composition that combines emotional effects and total intellectual analysis. Paradoxically, we must learn to touch the viewer’s heart without entertaining him. And this, I would call, the basis for a communist education, that could claim, at new level, that sense of the possibility of the return of harmony in life.

Footnotes:

[1] Alain Badiou, THE COMMUNIST HYPOTHESIS published athttps://www.newleftreview.org/A2705

[2] from an Interview with Alain Badiou “The Saturated Generic Identity of the Working Class”

This text first appeared in October 2006 at https://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=06/10/26/2128249&mode=nested&tid=9

[3] Maurizio Lazzarato “The Political Form of Coordination” published at

https://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/0707/lazzarato/en

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