Monday, October 31, 2011

Questions of Aeffective Resistance: Reading Shukaitis

This morning, the reading group discussed the chapter Questions of Aeffective Resistance from the book Imaginal Machines by Stevphen Shukaitis. Eight people participated; this is a summary of the discussion.

Imaginal Machines offers texts on the practice of political activism. Some main strands of thought running through it are a background in autonomist thinking, a critique of post-fordist labor conditions (including an awareness of the importance of immaterial labor), and an awareness of the affective political aspects of everyday life. The chapter under discussion, titled Questions of Aeffective Resistance, focuses on the importance of affective work, a type of work that is not usually acknowledged as "effective" because it is so much just about building social relations as such, rather than building infrastructure and systems and eventually "effectively" realizing utopian worlds. Rather than maintaining this distinction, Shukaitis wants to think affect en effect as one: hence aeffective resistance.

Utopian thinking has a tendency to make us feel guilty about not being effective enough, for example at moments when we tire of working towards our grand abstract goals. Somehow, certain forms of highly visible, spectacular resistance tend to be interpreted as more important because we think of them as more "effective". They also tend to be too grand to be effectuated during our lifetimes, which can easily become an instrument for keeping us feeling guilty, which might seduce us into ever greater forms of self-sacrifice. But the mere effort to keep our commitment going requires a different kind of work, that does not break headlines quite as much, but that is equally important as a part of any kind of activist struggle. It's the kind of work that keeps activist organizations capable of operating at all, which requires quite mundane tasks of community building, of caring for one another, and of caring for oneself. Such kinds of work need to be acknowledged as proper part of activist enterprises as well.

Shukaitis' chapter traces how these themes were developed particularly in the tradition of feminist activism, and how certain groups have tried to get domestic work, but also other forms of generally care-related labor (work involving giving attention, care, or sex), recognized as properly part of capitalist social relations and proper subjects for revolutionary activity. Examples given include Wages for Housework campaigns or the activity of the Spanish Precarias a la Deriva collective. These have tried, starting from a feminist perspective, to map out where and how these largely unacknowledged forms of affective production can be shown to exist as fundamental to our economic system, also with an eye to their potential as sites for resistance.

From the perspective of Occupy, stressing this kind of work, that is very much about nurturing a good environment for activism, is very relevant. What continues to be puzzling about Occupy for many people - including for people who are sympathetic to it - is that for them, it seems not sufficiently concerned with realizing a clearly defined political agenda (which one might expect from an activist group that seeks to have some "effect"). However, this is missing the community building aspect of Occupy, the experiments that it constitutes in maintaining alternative forms of collaboration as such.

Looking at two central institutions of Occupy might clarify this. The human mike style of holding assemblies can be seen as an aeffective strategy, which structures debates themselves very much in ways that make every voice part of the community. What the human mike technique allows for goes far beyond simply solving the problem of having a meeting without electronic amplification. It is a very physical, active way of building the community in its decision making process itself, as everybody gets to physically contribute to the discussion being held, and as everybody is involved in the amplification of each other's voice. Thus we all get to identify with the voices of others who are involved. Indeed, even though the human mike is not necessary in Amsterdam for legal reasons, at the very first meeting it was decided to adopt this device anyway because of how it helps structure the assembly as a community in a less hierarchical way.

The other important institution is the camp itself. Very much of the energies of those present at Occupy is involved in the kind of caring work that makes it possible to keep a camp up at all: cooking, cleaning, and making sure the atmosphere remains pleasant enough. It is important to see those tasks not merely as subordinate to the main task of creating some abstract utopia. In fact, they are every bit as much part of the activist effort.

Here, the discussion made an interesting link with an important sub-theme in the chapter, that of the opposition between "care" and "security". The latter refers to neoliberal society's hangup with being safe and having your property well-protected. An economy based on more acknowledgement of care, however, might work in a very different way. Indeed, aspects of the Occupy experience seem to resonate with this notion. Some participants in the discussion group have been particularly active as part of the peacekeeping groups, patrolling the camp at night, trying to contain potential conflicts. It was noted during the discussion that during the general assemblies, the tasks of care (cooking, cleaning, etc) seemed to be given more priority, accorded greater importance, through being discussed at greater length, than the peacekeeping tasks. Also, the peacekeeping efforts within Occupy tend to bring up more complicated fundamental tensions between the very inclusive nature of Occupy (which would have the camp be a completely unlimited place welcoming everybody, including inebriated nightly visitors who are simply interested in having a good time) and the need to keep some kind of order. There have even been cases in which an over-applied security logic has actually led to the escalation of conflict (as a rowdy group of visitors was pushed away from the camp with more zeal than was necessary to get them to quiet down and leave). It might be an interesting challenge to see if the peacekeeping function, too, could somehow be thought from a care-type paradigm. Peacekeepers more as the "mothers" and "fathers" of the camp than as its "policewomen" and "policemen".

The text also brought about a lively discussion of the relationship between the everyday and political activism. It can be read as a call for recognizing the importance of everyday life and activities as integral part of the political, not only in recognizing care as a site for labor, but in the very importance of care as such - for each other, but also for oneself (sleeping, eating well, taking a shower, feeling OK, taking the time to think are part of the revolution, too). As it was noted, one thing that is attractive about Occupy is that it allows you to "do nothing and still be part of the revolution" by simply living your life with Occupy - simply hanging out in a pleasant way is already a first level of involvement, and one does certainly not need to be constantly producing activist spectacle. Thereby Occupy gives a model for transcending all too strict divisions between "action" and "non-action", a motive that chimes in with the old question within revolutionary politics of the rift between doers and thinkers. In the end, both are needed; we need time to rest and reflect as much as we need time to act, and sometimes, refusing the sense of urgency can be an important part of activism.

Thus, if tendencies exist that separate "the political" as a sphere from day to day life, these must be resisted. (Such tendencies are particularly virulent in the Netherlands, in which there is a widespread culture of believing that politics is what happens in The Hague, and with the importance, say, of racist & sexist struggles within daily life tending to get downplayed). This realization led to a discussion of the Occupy Amsterdam camp as a site for politics. The question was raised if O.A., for all its openness and deliberate avoidance of particularist interests or programs, might not still too easily fall into the trap of becoming itself a closed-off space. Already there is a sense that this might happen as tourists stop by and take pictures of the camp, as if visiting from some other world, ignoring the fact that their own lives are in fact part of politics, too. Shouldn't the camp find ways to open up more? Perhaps it could advertise its needs for people who like to be involved in very "normal" tasks more? Make it clear that Occupy wants to consist of more than activists, hippies and the odd intellectual, but needs cooks, cleaners, and people with all kinds of skills? Find a way of saying to passing tourists "Wish you were here…"? On the other hand, of course the realization that daily life is political is not something that should only be enacted on the Occupy grounds as if they were the privileged place to live a political life today. The message could equally well be "Wish we could come with you" - that the visitor to O.A. takes the realization of the politics of his or her personal life home with them.

A third motive in the discussion was how the text raises this question of the visibility of the aeffective. The discussion in the text of the "care strike", as proposed by Precarias a la Deriva, suggests that a strike - the withholding of care - might be a way of showing the capitalist economic system the extent to which it founds itself on care work (in a clear echo of Aristophanes' Lysistrata). This does however imply that such visibility might only articulate itself in capitalist terms: a care strike functions, because it makes the product "care" economically scarce. One wonders how long this strategy might remain in accord with the revolutionary potential of care, attention, etc. insofar as care could be an unlimited resource: a form of pure production. In fact, in offering somebody care, attention, sex etc. in ordinary (non-remunerated) social relations, the "producer" enacts his or her desire as much as the "consumer" (and probably gets as much out of it). The logic of lack seems at odds with the potentially unlimited profusion of care. Might the politics of care not need to be articulated, and be made aeffective, in ways that are entirely outside of capitalist social logic?

Or would that mean a retreat for such politics, because the struggle with[in] capitalism would then continue to ignore the aeffective dimension? As Shukaitis himself puts it in the text,

[...] one cannot overlook the very real forms of labor, effort, and intensity that are required for the on-going self-constitution of communities of resistance. To do so all too often is the ways in which patterns of behavior that communities in resistance are working to oppose and undermine (sexism, racism, homophobia, heteronormativity, classism, etc) reappear, as people falling back on structures of thought and assumptions that have become normalized through their daily lives in other ways that often get looked over precisely because it assumed that they been dealt with.

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