Here is the last of the talks I gave in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in a session on Critical Urban Theory organized by Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont.
“Goodbye Mr. Criticism”
Negri’s title is Goodbye, Mr. Socialism. I can’t speak for Negri, but my guess is that he means what he says. Given the argument in the book, Negri would probably be happy to say goodbye to socialism once and for all, given of course that we understand the term to mean a State society in which a proletarian party controls the apparatus of government. If so, I am happy to stand behind him 100%.
I can speak for myself, though, and my title is polemical. That is, I am overstating to make a point. I don’t mean to say that we should say goodbye, once and for all, to critique and criticism in urban theory. We can have critique. There is a role for it. But we must always remember that its role must be subordinate, that it can never be primary. I want to say about critique what Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace said about irony. Hyde says
Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage. That is why it is so tiresome. People who have found a route to power based on their misery–who don’t want to give it up though it would free them–they become ironic (Alcohol and Poetry, 1986, p. 16).
And Wallace follows on:
This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….But irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks…I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures…one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow…oppressed (“E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”).
So irony and criticism can play a role, but it can only be a limited one, a ground clearing, a removing of barriers that prevent us from growing and thriving. But there is a problem: this limited role is not so easy to maintain. Critique has a tendency to be voracious. It has a habit of consuming us, of coming to occupy our entire political imagination. Who can deny, for example, that our critique of neoliberalism has become almost obsessive?
Its geography, history, logic, global spread, ecological consequences, ethnography, and even its recent crisis. We have become so consumed by destroying, by the ground clearing, that we have forgotten what else there is.
This is Nietzsche’s argument, about ressentiment. He says that we live in a system he calls “slave morality,” which teaches us relentlessly that we are oppressed, and that we should hate our oppressors because they are evil. In this way of thinking, we can only be good by disassociation, because we are not them. We stew in our ressentiment, we become obsessed by our oppressors, and we forget to do anything other than criticize their power. Nietzsche is worried that ressentiment can grow to eat up all other modes of thought, that it renders us able to feel only spite, bitterness, anger, and envy. Such feelings, for Nietzsche, mean we are on the wrong track, that we have come to accept our cage, to fixate on it. We are obsessed with neoliberalism, austerity, oligarchy. And here’s the thing, for Nietzsche: this obsession prevents us from discovering our own power, our own potential for creation, our own strength, our own will to grow and flourish, our own will to life. And so it is essential that we rid ourselves of ressentiment, he says, that we become instead those “whose task is wakefulness itself” those who say yes to life, those who discharge their own strength into the world. (This is all in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).
To a troubling extent in geography, I think, we are awash in critique, we are macerating in our own bile. We need a way out. We need to take seriously what Henry Miller says: you need to
cease pouring it out like a sewer, however melodious it may sound to your ears, and rise up on your own two legs and sing with your own God-given voice [Numen]. To confess, to whine, to complain, to commiserate, always demands a toll. To sing it doesn’t cost you a penny. Not only does it cost nothing—you actually enrich others (instead of infecting them). . . .(Sexus, pp. 429-30; quoted in Anti-Oedipus, p. 334).
So what should we be doing instead? What would it mean to sing, to say yes to life? It is certainly not to learn to love neoliberalism, to appreciate its benefits. Neither should we pretend neoliberalism doesn’t exist, to turn to empty diversions, to feel-good stories about reggae or volunteering in Central America, to listen to NPR.
I think Deleuze & Guattari have it right: start from Hobbes. Hobbes realizes that the State has no power of its own. It only has the power the people agree to give it. For Hobbes, there is no way around it: the people are the source of all power; State power is derivative. Marx was just following in Hobbes’ wake when he told us that labor is the source of all economic value, that capital must suck out that value like a vampire. The State is not the source of power. Capital is not the source of economic wealth. We are. Begin there. Redirect our attention: toward what we can do, toward what we want to create instead. And then pursue it. And connect with others who are also pursuing their own strength, pursuing truths that feel the same as yours.
The Invisible Committee: “Attach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.”
Scroobius Pip: “You see a mousetrap. I see free cheese and a fucking challenge.”
If the State or capital is impeding this project somehow, clear it. Critique can be useful in clearing obstacles. Moreover, if it is done right, critique can even be a way to search for and discover our own vital powers.
This is the way Deleuze and Guattari see critique too. They tell us to
lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 161).
They say we should be attentive to the powers that constrain us, sure, just not obsessively. And our goal in playing attention to the powers should not be confront them and smash them. Rather we should examine them in order to know how to turn away from them, to know how to escape. “Don’t fight,” they tell us, “flee.” When we flee, we will have the chance to properly turn our attention to ourselves, to discover (or rediscover) our own power, to get to know our desiring machines, to find out what they can do, to see how they can produce flow conjunctions, to see how we might cultivate our small plot of new land.
So “Goodbye, Mr. Criticism” is a polemic, because there does remain a role of critique. But only if critique is used to carefully examine the contours of the strata, to better understand the apparatuses of capture, so that we can flee. And we flee only in order to make possible the other ways of being that we already have within us, ways of being that are latent, inchoate, dormant.
Let me give you an example.
Whatever you think of Hardt & Negri, I recommend to you a crystalline essay by Michael Hardt in which he offers what he calls a “critique of political economy,” and he says that “any communist project must begin” with this sort of critique. He argues that in contemporary capitalism the composition of labor and the relations of property is changing. Labor has changed such that the leading edge of accumulation, the form all other forms will be forced to adopt, is immaterial labor: it produces ideas, knowledges, codes, and it produces affective relations among people. That is, it produces, as products, things like common understandings, common languages, and common sensibilities. Products that by their nature held in common by many people, products that are easily shared or reproduced. These products are increasingly hard to enclose as property. Moreover, enclosing them tends to reduce their value. They work best when they are held in common. But of course expanding the common undermines the basis of capitalism. And so we see the increasing importance of efforts to reinscribe the idea of “intellectual property,” as a way for capital to expropriate the common and charge a rent on it (patents, copyright, SOPA/PIPA). What capital is doing here is scrambling desperately to discover new ways to control and profit by this production of an expanding common. Apple, for example, depends utterly on vigilantly restricting access to code that was produced in common by thousands of coders across many decades. Faced with this fact, we can be bitter about this, resent them for their hoarding a resource that should belong to everyone. Or, we might instead pity them: for having to hustle so hard, and employ such a large army of lawyers, to defend a sad model that is always on the brink of being swallowed up again by the common ocean from which it emerged. Hardt is saying that contemporary capitalism is becoming a world in which the leading edge of labor is relentlessly producing a new common that is increasingly hard for capital to enclose. If communism is properly conceived as the abolition of property as such, Hardt says, let us be attentive to the ways in which we are already producing communism in the world right now, all around us.
So, just a taste of what critique might be like when it sets out to discover potential rather than stew in ressentiment. One thing we should not do with Hardt’s critique is get sucked into a debate about how important or large or powerful or autonomous the emerging common is. He isn’t telling us that capitalism will collapse under its own weight tomorrow, that we need only stand by and wait for its fall. He is saying, I think, that capitalism is always struggling desperately to contain us, but it is also always, necessarily, unleashing us unintentionally. It is our power that it must control. The potential for its demise rests not in its internal contradictions, but rather in us, in our own strength, in the strength we are only just learning how to use. Hardt is offering us a methodological reorientation, away from the search for the ubiquitous and inescapable power of capital and toward the search for the ubiquitous and emerging power of the common.
So what kind of positive practices might such critique imply? Paolo Virno insists that what we need today is to conceive of and engage in a project of an exodus, a flight, a defection.
But despite what it seems, Virno’s idea of exodus is not a negative one. For Virno we should leave, we should flee, but not in order to starve the powers that be, even though that might happen. Rather for Virno exodus is a positive act because we withdraw, we flee into smooth space, in order to discover and experiment with our own power. Exodus is a way to discover our own “latent wealth,” he says, our own “abundance of possibilities.” It is a project to learn how to use this wealth, how to begin putting it to work. Exodus
involves, therefore, a complex ensemble of positive actions. It is not a resentful omission, but a committed undertaking. The sovereign command is not carried out, because, above all, we are too busy figuring out how to pose differently the question…(p. 199).
Learn our legs, learn what they can do, learn what they can’t do, where we need to get stronger. Cease being obsessed with oppression; become obsessed with ourselves. Stop pouring out critique like a sewer, and begin to sing in our own voice.
In terms of what we might hear when we begin to sing, Virno proposes ideas like a “non-State Republic” (199), “a power that refuses to become government” (201), “leagues, councils, and soviets” (203), “a non-State public sphere,” and “nonrepresentative democracy”:
Democracy today has to be framed in terms of the construction and experimentation of forms of nonrepresentative and extrapaliamentary democracy. All the rest is vacant chitchat (p. 202)
He doesn’t specify any of these new ways of living in detail. That is because they are all emerging, they are yet to be realized. We must decide what they will mean together. But we can’t do that unless we turn our attention to these new ways of living, unless we begin taking seriously the question of what we can do.
One last word, perhaps, on someone I have not mentioned yet.
With all the emerging fascination with the idea of the planetary, with planetary urbanism, I want to end by insisting that we read Lefebvre as very much a part of this lineage, from Nietzsche, through Deleuze & Guattari, and on into the Italians. We tend to take up Lefebvre through Harvey (and Castells), and for years that tradition has missed the particular power of Lefebvre, stuffing him awkwardly into an orthdoxy that sanitizes his dangerous spirit. Lefebvre was clearly a thinker of possibility rather than limitation. He did not stew in ressentiment. He examined the industrial city and abstract space only in order to probe for the creative possibilities of urban society and differential space. He searched tirelessly for what could grow in the cracks of the dominant order. He didn’t see a mousetrap. He saw free cheese and a fucking challenge.