Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity

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I’m sitting in LAX after the AAG conference and my computer is about to die, but I wanted to get a post out there about the book I was reading on the plane flying down, the book I mentioned in both the panels I participated in. I’m only halfway through Gerald Raunig’s new Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity, but I think it speaks to posts on this site by Amy and Gene.

Three of the primary points to which I’m currently connecting are as follows:

1) The idea of “gently striating” or “streaking” smooth space. In his elaborations on Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk,” Raunig tells us that in order to express some sort of solidarity, we need little reterritorializations (“never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us”). In his telling of the story, the mouse folk are constantly on the move, generating smooth space, chattering away. But when meek Josephine sings, they all stop to listen: the chattering subsides, the flows coagulate and the mouse people are together, focused on her performance, temporarily. She is no figurehead, no despot, but rather one who is actualized out of the multitude through her performance. I undoubtedly see connections to Ranciere here (see my previous post), but in this context I’m even more interested in how this idea applies to both our Seattle-based reading group and this little experiment called Nomad Scholarship.

2) In the chapter entitled “In Modulation Mode: Factories of Knowledge,” Raunig discusses the edu-factory, a mailing list that started in 2006. The primary point I want to draw from this discussion is what he calls their central mission: “the struggle for autonomous free spaces in the university and simultaneously self-organization and auto-formazione beyond existing institutions” (49). I immediately turn to what we’re doing here as one instance of this sort of autonomy, and I immediately think of ways to “increase the number and complexity of connections” (I’d love to cite this, but I don’t remember if it’s D&G, Hardt, the Invisible Committee, or someone else?).

For example, one of the participants on the panel Cheryl and I organized told me about the D&G reading group in which he participates at University College London. I told him about this online experiment and he said they’d been struggling with their own sort of virtual home. Needless to say, I’m going to try to get them linked in to this site as well. Another example: our panel, I think, was very well-attended, and I mentioned at the end that people other than panelists who wanted to continue the conversation should send us an email, so we could try and cobble together a sort of D&G/Urban Theory email list. It would be a small step, but after seeing the growing pains through which urban theory is going this morning, I think it could lead to an incredibly rich dialogue.

3) Lastly, and again with similarities in Ranciere’s idea of the ignorant schoolmaster, I’d like to mention Raunig’s investigation of Foucault’s last College de France lecture series, The Courage of Truth. In this lecture, Foucault allegedly outlines three roles of the teacher w/r/t discourses of truth: the teacher as “expert,” “wise man,” and “prophet.” I won’t elaborate on the details here, but Foucault evidently sees a fourth role that goes beyond these three roles and it’s called parrhesia, or “truth-speaking.” Though their are multiple modes of parrhesia, Raunig (or perhaps Foucault) seems to be saying that “ethical truth-speaking as Socratic test and exercise leading to care for the self and others” (58). This, Raunig argues, is a form of teaching that “leads people to take of themselves” (59). Of course, this is much like Deleuze’s remarks about the swimming instructor teaching one not to move like the waves, but rather move as the instructor moves, in his motions that express the truth of swimming. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling argument and I think it speaks to the organization of these autonomous zones and experiments in which we are all participating: the democratic self-organization of the groups, the non-hierarchical organization of the discussions, and so on.

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multitudinous

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.

A thought experiment

In response to Gabriel’s and Cheryl’s posts, I thought I’d share a personal dream of sorts, in the form of a thought experiment. Take this lovely building, located in heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood:

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Though I’ve only lived in this neighborhood for about six years, I’ve watched the gentrification machine come and go, and recently return. Around the time this photo was taken, I believe the only commercial tenants on the first floor were the Comet Tavern (live music, on the corner) and the Basic Plumbing bath house (yes, that kind of bath house) to the right. The bath house has closed and a diner is currently going in. A seedy dance club where there was a shooting back in 2008 or so has been split into two retail spaces, one of which is The Lobby bar, and the other of which stands empty. But the retail isn’t what interests me.

Turning to county property records, we can see that there are 28 residential units above, which average 649 square feet apiece, and they are all vacant: the county deems them uninhabitable. Assuming the building is structurally sound (the city does not identify it as unreinforced masonry, which would be the worst case construction type with respect to earthquakes), it might be possible to renovate the units to a bare yet functional standard and/or to encourage people who needed a space to live and/or work to help build out their own space under some sort of cooperatve/”sweat equity” model.

Obviously, the task of reversing primitive accumulation comes first, and in this case, the first step would mean freeing the building from the current owners who are only putting part of it to use (as use- and exchange-value), and returning it to its full use value. With my engineering background, I can’t help but think of this quantitative terms: say each apartment would cost $500 a month, which is way below market-rate in this area (my apartment, six blocks away is the same size and could probably rent for $1400 a month; I also split a small office space in a building right around the corner, in the back of a theater, that my friend and I rent for a total of $400). Still, at $500/month, 28 units brings in $14,000 per month. I don’t know what the retail tenants are paying, but whatever it is, it would surely be at least $6,000 per month (probably much more), which would bring the income up to $20,000 per month. Going by the rule of thumb that a bank needs to make about 1% a month on whatever it lends out, this amount of income corresponds to around what the building would currently cost on the market (~$2 million).

Undoubtedly this sort of model rests on a status quo market transaction, but what I think is so amazing about this building is that there are 21,400 square feet of empty apartment space in the center this neighborhood, and I’m trying to think of how a combination of radical and reformist movements could free this surplus space from its present state of capture. Setting aside practicalities (like coming up with a down payment), I’m thinking about how people with backgrounds in architecture, engineering, plumbing, and electrical systems work could help this sort of movement started, and take the edge off some of the requisite labor. Moreover, as buildings in the neighborhood are purchased for similar prices, demolished, and rebuilt as luxury condos, the allure of salvaging a century-old building like this one and bringing it up to a standard in which “regular” people could thrive is incredible.

Thinking again of the terms that Holland outlines as constituting minor marxism — work, consumption, and debt — is helpful: with the cost of housing being as low as it would be here, less work would be required; using the labor of the future occupants to help produce the space reduces the amount of outside labor to be purchased; debt, unfortunately, would probably be increased for the “financially responsible parties,” but I’d like to think of this as a place where truly free market relations could flourish, thereby relaxing this debt burden. Freed from what Harvey calls “the coercive laws of competition,” it seems that there would be no need to demand higher costs for the living units, which would correspond to offering prices far below the going market rate, and result in something like a waiting list for spaces rather than a vacancy sign out front.

Only connect!

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
–E.M. Forster

While I undoubtedly appreciate Harvey’s argument for shifting the class struggle outside the factory and into urban space, I find his conception of a revolutionary class to largely be mired in that rusty bourgeoisie-proletariat duality. In his discussion of the production of urban space, he invokes construction workers, laborers that work in “maintenance, repairs, and replacements,” as well as those involved with transporting materials and products through space, and others constituting food systems, energy, and water infrastructures. There is no question that this “class” of workers is crucial to the production of cities, but I can’t help but see this conception of a revolutionary class as the contemporary incarnation of Marx’s factory workers, and therefore only a slice of a larger productive population of urban service and knowledge workers.

Referring to mining, steel fabrication, bridge construction, and truck driving, he writes:

“All of these activities (including spatial movement) are productive of value and of surplus value. If capitalism often recovers from crisis, as we saw earlier, by ‘building houses and filling them with things,’ then clearly everyone engaged in that urbanizing activity has a central role to play in the macroeconomic dynamics of capital accumulation.”

Thinking of Seattle in particular, where Amazon.com is “driving urbanization,” shouldn’t we be considering the labor constituting Amazon as well? This isn’t a new argument – we just read Virno discussing the melding of Arendtian Work and Action in the post-Fordist (“Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus”); Hardt and Negri discuss it at length in Multitude – and I’m not trying to detract from traditional labor. Instead, I’m thinking of increasing the number of connections amongst those who create “value and surplus value” through looking at the internal difference of the clunky categories that Harvey invokes.

Focusing on the three dependencies – work, consumption, debt – that Holland attributes to minor marxism (11), is a straightforward avenue by which we can envision how such knowledge workers can also become-revolutionary. Both the pipe-fitter and the computer programmer must sell their unique forms of labor-power to survive, both must pay the rent, and both likely have some sort of consumer or student debt. Rallying around these similarities, these points of connection, is – at least in my thinking – the most powerful way to create alternatives to contemporary social production. Only connect!

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….