Just ran across this article in the NYT that touches on a lot of the issues that usually get discussed in our conversations, and it makes me think of the role of ‘reform’ while waiting for revolution…
Author Archives: cheryl gilge
I almost posted a thought for the last reading, Multitude. I decided to refrain for a couple reasons…. One reason being that I never finished the reading… But I wasn’t compelled to finish it, either. But reading Beasley-Murray’s conclusion (or, secondary elaborations, as Jameson calls his lengthy conclusion), it still feels relevant. The crux of the almost-post focused on ‘spirit of engagement’, and how I feel wholly dissatisfied by H & N’s narrative style. I can’t say I disagree, necessarily, with their articulation of Empire, or Multitude, but I can say I don’t respond to their ‘attitude’, for lack of a better word….
When I read Deleuze- or Deleuze and Guattari- it brings me joy. The way in which they work through ideas I find inspiring, and their characteristic ‘movement’ between poles of a concept is infinitely helpful as a strategy for understanding something in its complexity, to the best of one’s ability. I feel strongly about classic dialectical strategies and I loathe binaries. Both feel artificially constructed and what results, I think, is an often thin articulation of two opposing points of view, in order to advance the third position. Even if that third position feels ‘right’, the process of getting there leaves much to be desired, at least for me. And when a particular position is advanced, like Empire or Multitude, as concepts, the way in which H & N articulate the pervasiveness of the concepts, the inevitability or teleology of the narrative, I end up feeling like I don’t really have a lot of room to ‘move’. They have (or, really, ‘one has’, as this is less about H & N, per se, than a stylistic tendency) constructed a particular narrative in which they forcefully advance a particular position. I feel hemmed in, and I find myself wanting to ‘pick a fight’ and offer as many points that contradict the narrative. I find myself wanting some concrete specificity for what feels like generalizations… (and it also stands as a consistent reminder to be ‘mindful’ with my own work.)
I’m not really sure what that is about, feeling like I have no room to move; feeling crabby about it. But as one who often reads against the grain, the style of thinking becomes really important for me, as I often take concepts or strategies and attempt make them my own. Or at the very least, it stands as a positive example of how I imagine myself to write, or rather, my aspiration to write as such. So, H & N make me crabby. D & G, they make me happy.
The piece by Beasley-Murray made me happy. He takes the concept of the multitude and gives it the space and attention that I often feel is missing with H & N. His careful comparison/explication of a number of concepts, like contract, contact, common, corruption, his overarching concept of ambivalence, etc., all nicely unpack the concepts in relation to H & N’s project. It feels carefully considered, while not feeling overly ‘safe’. This process does a couple of things- through ambivalence, it becomes more clear that there are/can be negative manifestations of the multitude, it highlights the ‘characteristics’ of multitude and empire, showing how similar they are in some ways, which ultimately points to the slipperiness of language and how constructing a concept and assigning it a name should be done carefully.
With D & G, they insist on the same kind of ambivalence of a concept, or what my earlier post on language called ‘neutral’; there are good assemblages and bad assemblages, productive lines of flight and suicidal ones; the concept in and of itself is but one thing. How it is manifested or actualized is wholly contingent. H & N recapture the ‘multitude’ and dress it as positive and productive, one that fits into their overall theory nicely. But this fixing of a definition stands in contrast to the spirit of D & G’s engagement. Considering the subjective nature of ethics, the role of encounter, what is considered to be held in ‘common’ in the multitude, etc., Beasley-Murray convincingly, through his careful articulations/engagement with H & N’s work, reinvests their work with the ambivalence that feels extremely important and necessary.
perhaps of interest to some:
Urban space is a commons; simultaneously a sphere of human cooperation and negotiation and its product. Today, we need to understand urban commoning, the creation and maintenance of urban commons, as a dialectical relationship between state and capital (e.g. Hardt and Negri 2009). Rather than positing commons as beyond state and market (e.g. Helfrich 2012), this conference asks how to move there. In particular, we wish to scrutinize how a focus on commons might advance (or preempt) existing or emergent urban struggles…
PDF for call located here:
“How are we to understand the autonomy that multitudes enjoy but crowds do not?” (711)
“A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first” (703)
Inadequate knowledge, recalling Spinoza and the proposition that states that we draw a correlation between unlike things… “The crowd’s desperate desire for a shared focus…stems from a constant collective anxiety about its own disintegration.” (704) Mazzy points to a clear ‘shift’ in attitudes with regards to a group of individuals, in which the crowd-cum-multitude has agency, or rather, “it takes the collective rather than the individual as the site of freedom, but – it turns out – only if the multitude’s emergent energies remain pure, uncompromised by actually existing in social institutions.” Or perhaps, “emergent integrity of collectivities.” (707) Painted as a site of potential, the multitude thus offers a possible world in which, presumably, the heady singularities are dialed in to their desires and collective energy.
Not having read Le Bon, I cannot speak to his handling of the text, but Mazzy states, “Le Bon remarks that crowds act ‘far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain.’” I can’t help but compare that unreasoned pure response to stimuli to pure ‘emergent energies’ that presumably act not from reason, but rather an unspoken surge of collective desire. How can we discern whether this collective desire is ‘desperate’ or ‘pure’?” And how do we know whether the gathering is ‘inert’ or has a ‘vital spark’? And recalling the Holland article, does this leave room for the ‘incorporeal transformations’ that may be taking place, but not immediately visible?
And not having read Multitude, I cannot speak to Mazzy’s mishandling of that either. But, in the spirit of discussion (given my ‘not having read’ state of being), where this thought experiment takes me is two places, the first one being language. Wikipedia makes a distinction between ‘a crowd’ and ‘the crowd’, in which one suggests a located group of individuals in time and space (though not necessarily) while the latter suggests an amorphous collection of mindless bodies. A multitude is equally amorphous ‘singularities’, though decidedly painted in terms that offer greater potential. Mazzy suggests that we are in the ‘age’ of the Multitude, and I cannot help but wonder, just because the language has changed, has the state of being?
The other place it takes me is to D & G, and the idea of a neutral concept. They repeatedly make the distinction between puissance and pouvoir. Both address notions of power, but how that power is manifested or actualized is radically different, whereas the former yields productive potential, the latter is negative, dominating. I cannot help but think of both the crowd and the multitude as possibly offering the same kind of distinction, regardless of terms. Might they not offer both a similar positive and negative manifestation? If it is accurate that the “multitudes express and produce, first of all, habit: ‘Habit is the common in practice…Habits create a nature that serves as the basis of life.’” (709-10) it seems it would be wise to regard multitudes somewhat suspiciously, given how pernicious habits can be in their negative manifestations.
I was just reminded of an article in the New York Times a few years ago that focused on ‘Freegans’. It seems particularly fitting for our discussion here… In short, it is a network of squatters in the NE that find vacant houses and live under the radar.
“One visitor I met was a former drug addict who had tried to kill himself more than once; another was an anemic-looking young woman who had been living under a bridge for four months. The majority, however, seemed to be iconoclastic young people from middle-class backgrounds living some version of the freegan dream.”
and how is it that this image was included in the article??
What’s land got to do with it?
If there is one thing that Becoming Poor has come to expect me to say about autogestion or some similar means, my question invariably comes back to the earth. Where, exactly, to we construct these alternative systems? How do we acquire land initially, if we are not currently in possession of any? And with what money? Or, is squatting enough? Does that allow us to flourish, whatever that might mean for us individually, or does it allow us to simply ‘persevere in our being’, to recall Spinoza?
In some respects, I feel a bit misunderstood. It’s not that I don’t believe alternatives to Capitalism can be developed. I think there are countless instances where real alternatives have been built and are actively utilized, either from a marketplace perspective, like Craigslist, or something more immediate, like food growing alternatives, such as Alley Cat Acres, guerilla gardening; knowledge commons like Wikipedia or open-source code sharing, etc. I like thinking about these instances as they do provide concrete examples of something other than… So, when I insist on talking about property, my motivation is to not squash hope. These questions come from a real interest is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than, ‘how will this ever work?’
Harvey mentions two things earlier in the text that strike me as important to this line of questioning. In ‘The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crisis’, Harvey points to one key problem with the Marxist perspective- here speaking to the housing crisis, but also in general, he asserts that while there is much attention paid to the movement of capital, not enough attention is paid to the role the property market had in this crisis. He faults Marx for focusing so heavily on the ‘production and realization of surplus while abstracting from and excluding what he called the ‘particularities’ of distribution (interest, rents, taxes, and even actual wage and profit rates), since these are accidental, conjunctural and of-the-moment in space and time.” (36)
So sure, with the housing crisis there were countless fraudulent or predatory practices that created the wave of foreclosures. But a key element is the use of land as a means to grow capital; land speculation, flipping houses, artificial inflation of the ‘value’ of land; not to mention a perceived belief that land should only increase its value, etc. (Detroit, anyone?) Without doubt, it was a complex assemblage of a variety of actors and forces, from the individual to the government, from the construction to the banking/finance sector, and to reduce it to one element is a failure to understand the conditions in which it was borne.
In the ‘Creation of the Urban Commons’, Harvey points out that the commons is not merely a space in which the idea of the commons comes alive- it is a social relation, a spatial practice, which he describes as ‘commoning’, born out of interactions and engagements in a spatial context, not fixed and not given. This seems in line with a spatial becoming, in my mind… (Which is not to say that this cannot happen virtually, but as embodied beings, we still move through space.) For Harvey, and addressing the idea of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons”, it’s not that the commons are the problem, “but the failure of individualized private property rights to fulfill common interests in the way they are supposed to do.” (75) This key point of contradiction, the needs of capital to produce versus the social character of the land, cannot be simply set aside. Both elements require actual space, and they are at odds with each other, especially given that land is but one element of the machine, bought and sold for a profit.
And this is where I hit a real wall in how we move from the smaller, manageable alternatives to actually breaking free from capitalism. While land is not treated in the same manner throughout the world, in the US, there is a history and an active practice of purchasing and selling of land, or renting as right of use. Unless we are in the UAE or Netherlands, and major land reclamation results in the production of new territory – at no small cost – land is finite. We face a limit of finding a little spot of land ‘free for the taking’ in which we can get out of the circuit of paying rent, which makes us reliant upon earning a wage. For Harvey, and I think worth thinking about, as long as we participate in capitalism on some level, we easily/quickly find ourselves subject to the ‘coercive laws of competition’. (160)
Just for the record, I am so much more in line with Holland’s thinking about potential in front of us –and its inherent uncertainty – given the conditions we find ourselves in, rather than looking for a neat program that we can install and then perform. But I think if we could figure out this element of spatial needs, we’d be on to something, as so many other parts/elements are already in place. And perhaps Detroit really is the first place to look, since capitalism doesn’t seem to be very interested….