My Reading Notes: You Can Have Them

I have been updating my long-neglected faculty home page, mostly because I am trying to learn HTML and CSS. I think it is coming along nicely, though experienced coders may disagree.

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One of the things I decided to do is to put my reading notes there, free to download. The idea is not very complex: I think they may be useful to others, and so I want to share them. I have not done this before, so I am not sure about all the ramifications. The only really good example I have seen is Michael Hardt’s reading notes on Deleuze & Guattari, which I found really useful, and I was glad he shared them.

So there you go. Take them. I hope they are useful. If they are, maybe you wouldn’t mind sharing yours as well. Augment the common stream. Stoke the general intellect. Make rhizome everywhere.

Property and the Commons

I recently participated in a conference called “This Land in Your Land: Remaking Property after Neoliberalism,” which was organized by Unbound, the journal of the legal left at Harvard Law School.  It was an interesting experience and really made me think about the disciplinary boundaries between law and political theory, and the professional boundaries between law and academia.  The organizers have posted video of the panel sessions, which are at:

http://www.legalleft.org/conference/remaking-property-conference/

(for the record, despite appearances, I am not sleeping, but listening intently 🙂

Cease pouring it out like a sewer and sing in your own voice

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.

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“Goodbye Mr. Criticism”

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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?

g  e d c ab f

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Michael Hardt on the Potential of Autonomia

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Nice Job!

I just re-read Michael Hardt’s introduction to the book Radical Thought in Italy.  Both the piece and the book are fantastic and recommended.  But what struck me this time was the beautiful job Hardt does of articulating the how the Italians tend toward a radical politics that focuses its attention not on the powers that be (what they often call constituted power), but rather on our own power (constituent power).  In autonomism this took the form, for example, of Tronti’s point that if all value is produced by labor (this is Marx), then the proletariat must be the leading class in society, the class whose activity shapes society.  The bourgeoisie, it follows, is thus continuously reacting to and trying to catch up to the action of the workers.  For the Italians, “the tasks of political theory,” while they do “involve the analyses of the forms of domination and exploitation that plague us,” nevertheless insist that “the first and primary tasks are to identify, affirm, and further the existing instances of social power [which already exist among people themselves] that allude to a new alternative society, a coming community” (7).  The point is therefore not to confront capital-and-the-state in order to seize their power.  Since we are the source of all power, we must instead withdraw our power–the power we already have–from the capital-and-state relation.  An exodus (Virno); a line of flight (D&G).

This line of thinking underscores the importance of Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment.  If we spend all our time obsessing about the intricacies of how constituted power dominates us, and resent the power it holds over us, we are not being attentive to our own (constituent) power.  We are missing the point, we are ignoring the way out, we are blind to “the entire creative potential of our own practical capacities” (6).  In this power lies the seeds of a communist and/or democratic society, and so ressentiment’s obsessive critique does nothing so much as occlude the path to the possible.

Marx on Communism

Reading Michael Hardt’s piece in The Idea of Communism, I am reminded of the power of Marx’s argument in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Here is just a snippet from the Early Writings:

Communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e. human, being, a restoration which has become conscious and which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of development.

Hardt & Negri, Representation, and Absolute Democracy

I am in the midst of copy editing my new book, and I found this passage particularly enjoyable on reading it again.  It outlines Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the contradiction between democracy and modern representative government.

For Hardt and Negri absolute democracy (a term they take from Spinoza’s Political Treatise (1677, Chapter XI)) is the first great modern innovation of democracy, and it functions to radically extend the ancient concept.  For ancients such as Aristotle, the demos did not mean the people as a whole.  Rather it referred only to the many poor who were not members of the elite classes. Aristotle assumed that these poor were always the majority, but they never constituted everyone in the society. Thus demo-cracy, the rule of the demos, was for Aristotle the rule of the many poor over everyone else. The modern innovation, Hardt and Negri argue, was to extend absolutely this concept of the demos from the many poor to everyone (2004, p. 240). As a result, modern democracy is understood to be the rule of everyone over everyone, or absolute democracy.[1]

Hardt and Negri argue that the second great modern innovation of democracy has to do with the question of scale. Rather than the polis-sized community of ancient democracy, modern states were national in scale.  But they still aspired to be democratic, and so they needed to invent a notion of democracy that was feasible at that larger scale. The solution that emerged was representation: everyone participates in selecting a few representatives, and those few govern in the place of everyone–they represent the whole.  Representative democracy thus connects people to their rulers through elections.  But it also separates people from their rulers because it opens a gap between “those who govern” and “everyone,” between rulers and ruled.  The representatives stand for everyone, but they can never be everyone.  But as we saw the first modern innovation of democracy imagines it to be absolute: in a democracy everyone governs everyone.  And so modern democracy cannot tolerate the gap between representatives and everyone. Representative democracy is therefore a contradiction.  Hardt and Negri write that “democracy and representation stand at odds with one another.  When our power [the power of everyone] is transferred to a group of rulers, then we all no longer rule, we are separated from power and government.”  However, they continue, “despite this contradiction…representation came to define modern democracy to such an extent that…it has become practically impossible to think democracy without also thinking some form of representation” (2004, p. 244).  For example, that association is now so taken for granted that Joseph Nye, a leading political thinker, asserts that “democracy is government by officials who are accountable and removable by the majority of people in a jurisdiction (Nye, 2002, p. 109).  Representation and democracy contradict each other, and yet the two have become entirely synonymous.

As David Foster Wallace once said, “what a fucking mess.”


[1] I should mention that Hardt and Negri are probably extending Spinoza beyond where he was willing to go.  He imagined absolute democracy to be a form of absolute state (Tucker, 2012), whereas in Hardt and Negri it is conceived of quite differently, as being beyond the state.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004) Multitude. New York, Penguin.

Nye, J. (2002) The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go it Alone.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Tucker, E. (2012) “Spinoza’s Absolute Democracy,” Paper given at the University of Washington’s Spinoza Symposium, March 3.