Radical media, politics and culture.

Armin Medosch, "More Lennon than Lenin"

More Lennon than Lenin
Armin Medosch, The Next Layer

Reviewing Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life
By Stevphen Shukaitis

It is not often that left-wing politics is associated with attributes such as humour and wit. Stevphen Shukaitis' book Imaginal Machines (2009) is not only abundant with it but shows that certain strands of imaginative revolutionary politics in the 20th century were also endowed with those precious qualities. This journey through the radical imagination of the left, written in a compelling and entertaining style, is definitely worth a read for everybody interested in radical and antagonistic politics.

Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life by Stevphen Shukaitis is just out on Autonomedia (see event recommendation below). The book deals with the problems and difficulties of the radical imagination as a source for political transformation. Thereby, Stevphen Shukaitis walks a tightrope, avoiding the two-sided abyss of either outdated notions of revolution as "seizing state power" and the more recent 'tradition' which knows only cultural politics and has thereby absented itself from the larger question of the transformation of the political economy. The 'balance' that Stevphen Shukaitis finds is not so much in between those opposites but by intelligently weaving together a narration which shows different types of 'imaginal machines' in their historic specificity.

In the Introduction Stevphen Shukaitis explains the problematic at hand:

"To invoke the imagination as underlying and supporting radical politics, over the past forty years, has become a cliché. A rhetorical utilization of ideas that are already in circulation that invokes the mythic unfolding of a self-institutionalizing process of circulation. At a certain point, the recourse to the imagination was no longer enacting new forms of creativity, but continually circulating forms that already existed and perceiving them as newly imagined." (Introduction, p. 10)

The type of politics Imaginal Machines deals with is in the tradition of dada, Surrealism and the way the Situationists adopted it. It also draws on the long history of the Industrial Workers of the World and their imaginative forms of struggle using music and pop cultural motives. It is a form of politics which tries to harness the transgression, the carnevalesque as a source of inspiration, to forge spontaneous bonds and create new 'social imaginaries'. Yet the problem is that many of those forms worked at a certain moment but then quickly lost their effectiveness. As Stevphen Shukaitis puts it:

"The problematic and shocking revelation is that social struggles do not die, but rather are left in a zombified state of indeterminacy where their only desire is to turn against themselves and eat the brains of the living labour resistance" (p. 26).

Zombie politics and the 'organisational gothic' are some of the favourite terms which appear again and again, together with concepts borrowed from and developed in dialogue with authors such as Cornelius Castoriadis, Silvia Federici, Toni Negri and David Graeber, to name just a few (a full list of works which relate closely to the content of the book is given on page 227). Stevphen Shukaitis openly acknowledges that imaginative strategies and tactics also have a sell-by date:

"We, too, participate in the process of constantly trying to revive the body of dead struggles, trying to repeat the same ideas, slogans, tactics, or plans in hopes that they will have the desired effect. They simply don't. Or even worse, they are resurrected into forms that are turned against living struggles" (p. 47)

This recognition, however, does not lead to defeatism and overall pessimism which grants capitalism too much agency and sees all efforts and ways of resistance and struggle as 'already' subverted and without chance. "There is no alien spacecraft that has landed," writes Stevphen Shukaitis, "unleashing hordes of little green men who are gnawing away at the revolutionary imagination" (p. 47). There is still something 'to be done':

"The task is to explore the construction of imaginal machines, comprising the socially and historically embedded manifestations of the radical imagination. Imagination as a composite of our capacities to affect and be affected by the world, to develop movements toward new forms of autonomous sociality and collective self-determination" (p. 10).

Stevphen Shukaitis does not shy away from the problems that this task throws up. "What does it mean to invoke the power of the imagination when it has already seized power (through media flows and the power of the spectacle)?," he writes (p.10). And he also duly delivers a definition of key terms in this context, such as autonomy: "In this text, autonomy broadly refers to forms of struggle and politics that are not determined by the institutions of the official left (unions, political parties, etc.)" (p. 17). While sometimes verging on what a friend of mine calls "the left-wing arty" the book cannot be fully subsumed under that category. It engages with real politics and labour struggle, working itself through concepts and issues that have troubled radical thought in recent years, from 'recuperation' to 'immaterial labour' and beyond. The engagement with those trendy themes does not allow itself to loose complete contact with the ground, as expressed by the following quote:

"Every shop, every enterprise, even outside of times of sharp conflict, of strikes and wage reductions, is the scene of a constant silent war, of a perpetual struggle, of pressure and counter-pressure." (p. 15 quoting Pannekoek 2005, p. 8)

The language and style, employing and exploring tropes such as zombieism and outer space in a light-handed and funny way, is as important as the 'content'.

"By playing the record backwards, the demonic message discovered was that capital's narrative of triumphant self-directed development was little more than cover for the reality that all of capitalism is the recuperation of social energies not of its own being" (p. 40)

Which is an important thing to say, since sometimes authors posit the 'newness' of their concepts and terms based on making a straw-man of the past. Underlying is a concept of paradigm change from Fordism to Post-Fordism which is rarely made fully explicit. What actually made that transition happen is a question that keeps us busy here at Thenextlayer.org. According to Stevphen Shukaitis, "the welfare state was then thrown into crisis by renewed forms of revolt against the factory line and social planning in the late 1960s and 1970s" (p. 40). he continues:

"But, what is important here are not necessarily the details of the transformation itself, but the importance in realizing that these transitions in economic and political regimes (of forms of labour, forms of state) are not something that is actuated through the whims and actions of autonomous power of capital. Instead, these transformations are determined by the efforts of state and capital to respond to the on-going and constantly changing forms of social insurgency that are occuring" (p. 41).

While there is something to this viewpoint, it could also be said that it was capitalisms innate drive for maximising the profit rate that motivated it to relocate industries abroad while sharpening the speed of rationalisation in the core industrial countries, which together undermined the tax base of the welfare state. Is it really wrong to "assume that there is some centralised structure where our best efforts to create a new world all end up frustrated and turned against themselves" (p. 47). Or would it be 'old' Marxism to claim that indeed that central force is the accumulation of capital and the shape that it takes in different periods in history, which currently is the centrality of financial capital as a 'productive force', productive albeit only on its own terms and for its own sake. Why this anxiety about centrality here, when, in another passage Stevphen Shukaitis shows some refreshing dissidence vis-a-vis the post-structuralist orthodoxy that anything that smells of a 'totality' must be inherently false, i.e. totalizing, i.e. leading to totalitarianism (p. 55)? Against such a one-sided reading he employs the fertile concept of Henri Lefvbre's 'open totality' (cf. Lefevbre 2009). The book is fun to read because it is 'open' in the best sense of the word. It deals with heavy concepts but not in a frontal assault. It is rather like the author is on a lengthy reconaissance mission, weaving in and out of sideways and dodgy allies, hacking himself through the underworld of zombified concepts, yet occasionally almost like stumbling against the wall of a fortified castle, i.e. big, chunky, issue:

"Thus, to speak of an autonomous self-determining capacity that existed before the advent of capitalism providing the seeds and routes going through and beyond it, is not simply to uncover its existence but also to take part in its collective construction. It is the presupposition of this autonomy, based on a perhaps mythical function, which enables the struggle for its realization." (p.54)

Stevphen Shukaitis continues this passage by explaining the potential problems of such an approach. It is an issue that also troubled me when recently re-reading The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844. The critique of alienation or, if you like, estrangement presupposes an unalienated stage, where — or whenever that existed, in the communist 'Ur-horde' or a utopian neverland or simply in the heart and mind of the writer. But what would such an unalienated stage look-like? Marx does not really explain that, he is too busy with the 'critique'. What is the basis on which we carry out this critique? I filed this question as 'unresolved', yet above quote gives a good hint: even if it has never existed, we can construct it. Then it should rather not be a matter of force but of rather developing a convincing imaginary through a collective process, a secular and practical or 'real' utopia.

There is too much good stuff in Imaginal Machines to avoid becoming too pedantic, yet some of the examples of imaginary tactics I have to take issue with. Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone never appeared to me as a concept that would walk very far, even back in the days when it was adopted by some radical squatter-ravers in the early 1990s. The reason for my reluctance to subscribe to this concept may be that at the time I was not a punter but someone who organised such parties and I could only foresee too well 'the lines of flight' that such movements would take. The Deleuzoguattarian concept of the machinic has never really caught on with me as it was quite easily adopted by the techno-affirmative branch of media art. The notion of the machinic too easily lends itself to being adopted by technologically deterministic concepts of 'swarming' software agents and other fake-radical new media art concepts from the mid-1990s. Maybe not Deleuze and Guattari's fault but certainly a 'problem' of those guilty of improper handling of the 'machinic' desires — here I side with Richard Barbrook's entertaining classic Holy Fools. And the Yesmen, brought up as lightning example, appear to try to become the Michael Moores of the net art scene.

But these are unimportant small squabblings with an otherwise great book. Stevphen Shukaitis writes: "The Plan 9 from the capitalist workplace is the process through which recently dead struggles, by having electrons shot into their pineal gland, become resurrected as horrifying and monstrous creations." (p. 47). So let's not flog a dead horse even if its our own dead horse. Lets identify those openings which currently exist to be imaginative about breaking the chains of capitalist domination.