Common Life: Critical Perspectives on Authority, Experience and Community.
A stream at the London Conference in Critical Thought, June 29 – June 30.
Organisers: Dr Leila Dawney and Dr Samuel Kirwan.
Session 1. Questioning community: new articulations of a ‘common’ politics.
Leila Dawney, “The idea of the common.”
Gundula Ludwig, “Community as a ‘body without organs’. Post-sovereign reformulations of democracy.”
Slavcho Dimitrov, “Shattering the grounds of community: Queerness, corporeality and the political.”
Patrick Bresnihan, “From commons to commoning.”
Session 2. On the practical and embodied: radical perspectives on the production and experience of community.
Tracey Skillington, “‘We bow our heads in deep mourning’: Genocide remembrance amongst global political communities.”
Thomas Swann, “Social Media, Organisational Cybernetics and Non-hierarchical Community Organisation.”
Alexandra Reynolds, “Collaborate or perish! The network economy, consensus democracy and late biopower.”
Adam Gearey, “On Martin Luther King day...”
Daniel Matthews, “A communality-to-come: Deconstructive politics and community.”
Tara Atluri, “Pirates and politics: A digital commons or Bill Gates’s wet dream?”
Naomi Millner, “An uncommon commons: Radicalising the radical imagination as a response to new enclosures.”
Sophie Ball, “Reclaim the commons: Occupy everything.” confirmed
“The idea of the common.”
This paper explores the political possibilities of this concept through a discussion of the production of new political subjectivities that it could generate, as well as a consideration of its role as an ethical and political tactic. With this in mind I refer to recent movements that have stressed solidarity politics, and have asked whether these have the potential to produce such new subjectivities, or whether they “get it wrong” because of the perceived rift between their practitioners and a collective (hegemonic) understanding of the “hardworking public”. Drawing on recent work on new materialisms and affect (Protevi, Barad, Connolly), I argue that following the movements of materials and bodies can elucidate the ongoing formation of a sense of the common through an analysis of the affective, embodied moments of its production (Dawney, 2011). Embodied practices enable imaginary identifications with others and with places. A consideration of the sensate, material and affective dimensions of certain practices, I argue, also draws attention to our shared embodiment and vulnerabilities that have been considered as central to the formation of the common (Nancy). Through these theoretical engagements, I consider the critical potential of developing collective subjectivities and the extent to which they are countered by politically dominant modes of subject production.
My paper is divided into two parts: The first one is dedicated to the critique of the modern, ‘Western’ understandings of democracy as political order that needs to be grounded in a community which is depicted as entity. In the second part I propose a post-structural understanding of community. In the first part, I argue that a specific understanding of ‘the body’ serves as crucial metaphor in constructing the demos as a self-contained community. With the emergence of modern sciences, the body became a source of objective truth and a naturally given entity. The strong use of bodily metaphors for depicting the political community that can be found in political treatise in the 18th and 19th century can be interpreted as attempt to construct the demos of the new, modern democracies as self-contained entity. In my paper I will focus on Germany in the 18th and 19th century and will lay out how an understanding of democracy that is based on the phantasm of a community as entity necessarily is limited. Furthermore, I will argue that such an understanding of the demos as entity still has its legacy in concepts of deliberative democracies in our present times.
Against this background, in the second part of my paper, I will focus on the question how democracy could be conceptualized differently if the phantasm of the body as source of certainty for any political community is unsettled. Rejecting an understanding of the body as a being, but rather deploying an understanding of the body as becoming, as a Body without Organs (BwO) (Deleuze/Guattari), as an intercorporeal, relational, fluid embodiement, I will discuss how such an understanding also leads to a reformulation of the political community. I will argue that if the body as source of certainty is suspended, also the demos is ripped off of its certainty. Political community then would be an infinite, disruptive, disorderly, hybrid, fragmented, ambiguous assemblage. Rejecting any transcendent principles that could be grounded in any ‘given entity’, the community as a BwO would take the impossibility of a grounding of the demos as starting point for rethinking the common, for rethinking demo-cracy in terms of demo-archy whereas the archy (principle) of democracy could only be the absence of any principle.
In the 1990s the 'commons' became an increasingly popular way of thinking about
alternatives to the privatization or state management of common resources (Acheson and
McCay 1990; Ostrom et al. 1999). Despite appearing to offer a more sustainable mode
of community resource management it has become a means of ensuring more effective
governance within a recycled narrative of (ecological) modernisation. The consequence
is the apparently neutral (non-ideological) and unavoidable extension of techno-scientific
control over socio-ecological relations.
In this paper I describe and develop the idea of 'commoning' (Linebaugh 2011) as a critical
response to the persistence of modern dualism. 'Commoning' describes an ongoing set
of relations embedded in everyday exchanges with the material world. These horizontal
exchanges provide the inter-subjective relations through which common worlds are
constituted: commons materialise through bodies, animals and things, and are thus
outside existing modes of representation (Bennett 2010; Ingold 2000; Papadopoulos
and Stephenson 2006). In this way 'commoning', as immediate and immanent, escapes
any normative, a priori framing of the 'common' such as those employed within existing
narratives of sustainability. This suggests a non-dualistic, ecological subjectivity that is not
external to a world (Nature) in need of regulation, but rather a multiplicity of enmeshed
natures (human and non-human) that emerge through the immediate sociality and
materiality of everyday experience.
In this paper I will articulate the idea of 'commoning' through my fieldwork on commercial
fishing boats and the poetry of John Clare, who wrote at a time of enclosure at the turn
of the nineteenth century. In conveying the unpredictable unfolding of a common non-
proprietary world these voices, separated by two centuries, offer an alternative mattering
of the 'commons' to the instrumental, humanist imperative of enclosure.
This paper explores some of the main symbolic practices used by the United Nations to transform the details of genocidal histories into objects of moral instruction for global communities. In particular, it will assess the binding potential and community-building capacities of annual UN commemorations of Rwandan and Holocaust atrocities. As high profile, public performances
of collective remembrance, mourning, loss, allegiance and solidarity, these commemorations provide a rich context today for the articulation of shared but also sometimes competing meanings and identities across transnational communities of interpretation.
One dominant mechanism used to represent our collective relationship to these past tragedies is to present scenes of commemoration as scenes of mourning. Ancient rites of mourning and self-humiliation thus feature heavily in these commemorative performances. Their stated purpose is to 'honor' and 'mourn' that part of the global 'human family' that is formally recognized as 'missing' and to ‘unearth the lessons we can draw from their lives and their fate'. However, as genocide atrocities keep re-emerging (e.g., the Great Lakes Region of Africa), phases of grieving and remembrance
can never be complete. Having set out from Auschwitz and Warsaw, the funeral processions are still winding their way to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. As one moment amongst many episodes of collective mourning, UN commemorations communicate 'a duty of love' to the dead but also,
a conciliation gesture or a show of solidarity with the living. The desire is to reconnect a disenchanted post-Holocaust humanity with a human rights-based project of agency, hope and redemption. Assertions like that proclaiming ‘we can and must do better in the 21st century’ (Edward Luck, Special Advisor to the UN's Secretary General, 7 April, 2010) point straight at the future but in a way that cannot ignore such failures in the past. Rather than offering ‘prophetic visions’ (Benjamin, 1996) of a world now largely free of barbarism, the act of commemoration is presented as a compulsory one for a global humanity still in danger of forgetting its own potential for evil.
The UK riots of 2011 saw social media coming to the fore in a seemingly horizontal form of organisation. The availability of real-time information allowed unconnected groups to coordinate action in efficient and successful ways. Rather than viewing the riots as a sign of a lack of community, this presentation aims to discuss the notion that the organisational structure of the riots actually signals the importance of a temporary or mediated community (Baker 2011) brought together for a definite goal. It looks at the use of social media during these uprisings within the framework of organisational cybernetics.
Organisational cybernetics, an approach developed by Stafford Beer (1979; 1981), proposes that the most efficient form of organisation is that which allows individual operating units to work autonomously within their own niche. These autonomous units are able to self-regulate their activities in coordination with one another and in line with the goals of the organisation. This is achieved by information sharing between operating units and higher level, more centralised units which redistribute information as opposed to distributing orders.
Hierarchy and centralisation are not, however, essential to this organisational model (Espinosa, Harnden and Walker 2007; Walker 1991). In this presentation, I want to highlight how the use of social media allows this information sharing to occur without the need for centralised information hubs. While the hierarchy of the organisational cybernetic model remains, it does so only as a metaphor as different levels of the hierarchy become functional roles played by different people at different times according to how the information is being transmitted. This, I will argue, is how temporary, mediated communities, or networks, can thus organise in ways that eschew the centralisation, hierarchy and, crucially, established structures of community central to past social uprisings.
Everywhere we turn today there seems to be an incitement to collaborate, share knowledge and produce results collectively. To exponents of the Network Economy such as Kevin Kelly we are entering a post-industrial age, where Max Weber’s pyramid of militarised capitalism is being replaced by a flexible and horizontal model, born of the digital and based precisely on transparency, sharing, trust and collaboration.
The Network Economy is proffered by many in utopian terms as something which can empower consumers and employees to become producers, working collectively towards a common goal. It is certainly a strange moment of seeming confluence between egalitarian ideals and hegemonic capitalism.
However, I would like to explore the power relations within this budding socio-economic framework. Taking a range of examples from Wikipedia to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, I will critique the true level and nature of collaboration which currently exists in the Network Economy, paying particular attention to the moments when power becomes visible. Exploring questions of surveillance, censorship, visibility and policing, I will argue that the network model can be seen both as an extension of Foucault’s Biopower and an incarnation of Rancière’s notion of Consensus Democracy.
Nonetheless, the network economy does hold interesting possibilities, partly because of the current cultural readiness to share knowledge and work in partnership. If we can emulate successful communities of practice such as those put forward by Elinor Ostrom rather than reproducing the pseudo-collectivity of many current organisations, it might be possible to produce successful projects and organisations which genuinely function through collaboration and horizontality, and use trust to egalitarian ends.
My paper will try rethinking the figural status of queerness in hegemonic political spaces by the means of its constitutive experiences and relations with bodily, emotional and affective discourses and practices. The corporeal experiences and histories of queerness will be explored as the symptomatic disclosure and actualization of the very impossibility of, what Edelman has called, the politics of reproductive futurism. Thus, I will try arguing that the repoliticization of the intersections of queerness, corporeality, affects and politics is necessary for demystifying the groundless ground of society and the perpetual failure of politics to fully realize its promises of universal principle, a substance and a ground of the political order and society immune to revision and contestation. I find this stance to be radically necessary in the context of contemporary gay identity politics, past communist communal experiences in SEE, supranational unification of the European community and the revival of ‘old’ nationalisms as they all structurally overlap in sustaining the “totalitarian” and “immanentist” concept of community (Nancy). This constellation imposes the exigency of rethinking the constitutive relation between body’s finitude and transformability as its singular and contingent spacings, relations and exposure, on the one side and the political abyss and, thus, consequently opening community towards the necessary futurity of democracy-to-come, on the other. Finally, taking queer bodily, affective and lived experiences as a starting point for rethinking the political and the groundless ground of community, I would like to draw some lines for future thinking on politics, elaborated in Rancierian vein while reconsidering his positions through the prism of Nancy’s thinking of the corporeal foundations of the political.
Like his friend Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida was deeply suspicious of “community” thought of as a present, totalizing, and essentialised collective that posits a clear sense of that which is included and excluded from its borders. Unlike Nancy, however, Derrida saw no purchase in rehabilitating notions of “community” and “the commons” in a deconstructive fashion. Derrida suggested that all communities suffered from an autoimmune tendency towards self-destruction. And whilst sympathetic with much of the thinking in Nancy’s Inoperative Community and Blanchot’s Unavowable Community, Derrida rejected their terminology, inferring that their projects had little to
do with “community” at all. Alongside this, however, Derrida remained committed to a belief in the emancipatory potential of democracy, with two book length studies (The Politics of Friendship and Rogues) dedicated to re-articulating a certain sense of the promise of democracy. His thinking is most famously encapsulated with his notion of the “democracy-to-come”.
A tension then exists in Derrida’s thought: how can the belief in the promise of the rule of the demos be conceived in the absence of any sense of community action and engagement? Moreover, how can a valorisation of, and commitment to, the absolute singularity of every other (implicit in Derrida’s Levinasian-inspired ethics) be reconciled with a sense of communality that underpins democracy?
Arguing against much of the existing literature (most notably Wendy Brown and Jacques Rancière) this paper seeks to retrieve a certain sense of community from Derrida’s thought. I argue that while Derrida offers a robust (and justified) attack on closed, “operative” or essentialised communities, this should not foreclose thinking of a deconstructive sense of communality. In particular, by unpacking the logics of différance and the à venir that underlie the notion of democracy-to-come, I suggest that a sense of a “communality-to-come” can be developed in light of Derrida’s work. In the same way that Derrida argues that the democracy-to-come calls for action and engagement in
the “here-and-now,” this sense of a communality-to-come is structured around a desire and need for practical and immediate engagement in politics (la politique) rather than being solely of use in recovering a sense of the political (le politique). The paper argues against the notion that Derrida leaves us with nothing but a kind of post-deconstructive individualism (as recently suggested by J. Hillis Miller) and hopes to illustrate ways in which Derrida’s thought offers new avenues for thinking critically about community, communality and the commons.
I am interested in exploring the paradoxes and possibilities of the digital commons. This is a Neo Marxist analysis that draws on Marxist scholarship and works pertaining to contemporary biopolitics and late capitalist economies. In relation to the Arab revolts earlier this year, Antonio Negri commented that, ‘social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter…are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously”(Negri, The Guardian, February 24 2011).
One could also make note of Blackberry technologies used in recent UK riots as evidence of how social networking tools can be employed for collective dissent. However, in “Post scripts on societies of control,” Gilles Deleuze remarks that within societies of control “…one is never finished with anything…” (Deleuze,1992). Within societies of control, the internet can be used to police and monitor people at all times. Slavoj Žižek also argues we have entered a predicament Marx could not have foreseen, in which we are landless peasants paying rents to American internet tycoon Bill Gates. Žižek argues that ‘cybercapitalists’ appear as the paradigmatic capitalists of today. He states that, ‘What we have here is an ideological short-circuit between the two versions of the gap between reality and virutality: the gap between real production and the virtual/spectral domain of Capital, and the gap between experiential reality and the virtual reality of cyberspace’ (Žižek, 2007, 228).
Cyberspace allows for monopolies of rabid capitalists while workers in the global south labour in exploitative conditions to produce the latest technological gadgets. Conversely, New Delhi based activists/artists The Raqs Media Collective imagine that, ‘A community of programmers dispersed across the globe sustains a growing body of software and knowledge—a digital commons that is not fenced in by property controls. A network of hackers, armed with nothing other than their phone lines, modems, Internet accounts, and personal computers inaugurate a quite global insubordination by refusing to let code, music, texts, math and images be anything other than freely available for download, transformation, and distribution…’ (Raqs, 2010,108-109).
This paper will deal with the paradoxes of the “digital commons.” We can use the language of biopolitics and biopower to judge the paradoxes of the internet age. As Antonio Negri makes clear in “Art and Culture in the Age of Empire,” ‘The only problem that concerns us today, when we consider the new cultural determinations in imperial space, is that of seizing the moment of intersection, the determination of the event, the innovations that traverse the chaotic ensemble of the multitude. It’s a matter of understanding when biopolitical expression triumphs over the expression of biopower’ (Negri, 2007, 50).
When and how is cyberspace used to re fashion biopolitical expression over biopower? Negri discusses the possibility of ‘…taking ourselves as the starting point of a creative project. It’s the possibility of transforming our bodies, not just of rendering them hybrid by an interaction with the outside world, but of constructing them and rendering them hybrid from within. It’s the possibility of engaging in politics by leading all the elements of life back to a poetic reconstruction. The very term “biopolitics” implies this constitutive project’ Negri, 2007: 50).
The implications of transformative biopolitics are met with bipower, as state strategy. It is perhaps useful to reference Foucault’s originary use of these concepts. Lazzarato states that, “…'life' and 'living beings' (le vivant) are at the heart of new political battles and new economic strategies….” ( Lazarato, 2011). He goes on to reference Foucault who stated that, “Western man gradually learns what it means to be a living species in a living world, to have a body, conditions of existence, probabilities of life, an individual and collective welfare, forces that could be modified...” (Lazarato, 2011) Biopower can be defined, very generally as, "...an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations." (Lazarato, 2011).
I will discuss key moments in the world of technology that gesture to transformative biopolitical uses of the internet and regressive forms of digital biopower. Namely, I will discuss cyberbullying and queer suicide, cyberfeminism in regards to Slutwalk organizing globally, the case of the Iranian `blogfather’ given a life sentence for creating blogs that were said to inform the 2010 Iranian Green revolution, the problem of ‘Bill Gates’ and other cybercapitalists, and cultures of internet piracy.
This paper revisits the idea of the ‘commons’ often associated with radical imaginations for change, developing a theoretical framework which places this commons as an always-coalescing vision of community, rather than a particular set of social goods, or unquestionable grounds for political unity. As such this ‘commons’ must be acknowledged to be as present in fundamentalist and fascist visions of political change as in Leftist calls to arms – in fact, wherever political unity and momentum exists. The challenge for a properly ‘radical’ politics, such as that laid out by political theorists like Jacques Rancière, Todd May, and others, is to continuously intervene upon and remake this imagination, from a ‘minoritarian’ vantage. I revisit the idea of the commons through this minor way, reflecting first on how this alters how we approach the enclosures of common lands and counter-movements in sixteenth century England, and draw upon their histories in our critical claims. Secondly I offer some methodological tactics for critically revisiting the new enclosures which David Harvey (2003) associates with new forms of capitalism, developing examples from recent episodes of ‘land grabbing’ in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The paper suggests that such acts of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ cannot be countered by a simple reiteration of the need to protect the commons. Instead concerted efforts to interrupt the common imagination from a minority vantage are called for, which require courageous associations between academics, activists and practitioners.
‘The Commons’ is a phrase with an apparently simple enough meaning yet one that we can currently see being used with rapidly accelerating frequency in an ever-broadening range of issues, and carrying, it would seem, ever more depth of meaning. This paper sets out a brief history and typology of the commons, drawing on a diverse selection of texts from Magna Carta to statements by the collective Anonymous, and highlighting also the significance of grassroots movements in the re-emergence and development of the commons discourse.
Practices of commoning are a reinvention of political relationship. In the contemporary development of a discourse around the commons we can identify a reaction against the imbalance of corporate power versus that of the individual, and a response to the failure of governments to acknowledge the voice of their citizens. If neoliberalism has encroached upon, privatised, destroyed or damaged commons, if it has limited or denied access to physical, economic, cultural and political spaces, then movements to reclaim spaces, to ‘reclaim the commons’, have emerged to counter these trends. Grassroots activism has tended to be overlooked by mainstream media, academics, business and political parties. By failing to recognise the significance of grassroots activist groups and their achievements, we overlook a noteworthy movement towards a new democracy that is ‘a reimagination of public governance emerging from place, culture, and people.’ (Hawken 2007)
‘Commons thinking’ is found in approaches to the management of resources which prioritise social and environmental justice, providing a reformative tendency to neo-liberal capitalist exploitation, as well as responding to emerging issues concerning the management of global environmental commons. It is also found in radical approaches which see irreconcilable contradictions between capitalism and notions of the commons and which do not accept solutions based on capitalist growth. This paper will argue that the discourse of the commons transcends the capitalist/anti-capitalist dichotomy and helps us to reconceptualise the political and economic sphere.