Hardt and Negri tell us that, in postmodern society, “characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies,” what we experience instead is “a kind of social flesh, a flesh that is not a body, a flesh that is common, living substance” (2004,190, 192). Traditional social bodies were organic ones; the supposedly hierarchical organization of biological … Continue reading “Monstrous Flesh”
I just finished reading Yann Moulier Boutang’s Le capitalisme cognitif (Cognitive Capitalism). Boutang is the editor of Multitudes, a French journal closely associated with Toni Negri. The basic thesis of his book — in accord with what Hardt and Negri say in Empire and Multitude — is that we are entering into a new phase … Continue reading “Cognitive capitalism?”
Julian Dibbell‘s Play Money, Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot is his account of a year spent, not just on the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) Ultima Online, but actually trying to make a living buying and selling Ultima Online artifacts on sites like eBay, for “real” US dollars. Dibbell endeavors to earn as much money through virtual artifact-trading as he ever did as a freelance journalist (which is his regular day job); and, though he doesn’t quite succeed, he does enter and explore a shadowy world, having to do with money and commerce, and blurring the lines between virtual and actual, reality and fantasy. Working in these markets is as strange an experience as anything he could have encountered purely online, in Ultima or elsewhere…
In the Age of Aesthetics, when we say that something is “history,” we mean not to honor it (as might have been the case in other times and places) but to dismiss it as obsolete and irrelevant. We collect mementos of the past, but we do not take History seriously as a process, or a force, or a source of meaning. It is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary styles. This is the situation that Jameson decries when he describes our world as “a society bereft of all historicity,” in which the collective past has become nothing more than “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.” We have arrived, as Fukuyama claims, at the End of History. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit has realized itself in the form of an immense archive of digital images. And these images aren’t freely available. Their copyrights most likely belong to Corbis, a “privately held” corporation owned entirely by Bill Gates.
Another rough draft from The Age of Aesthetics. Part of the problem here is that I have two oppositions which don’t necessarily fit together. One is modernist innovation, always involving antagonism, in contrast to corporate-promoted innovation today, which is non-antagonistic. The other is micro-social and micro-political collective innovation, versus the corporate capture and privatization of innovation. These two schemas of the politics of innovation don’t quite coincide the way my argument would like them to.
The yearly Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle takes place this weekend. I’ve gone to all the previous conferences, and they have been great, but unfortunately this year I am unable to attend, due to family circumstances. I was supposed to be giving a talk on the Kleptones, but I had to cancel.
The conference has always had a wide and open definition of “pop” — pretty much anything goes — but this doesn’t really address the question of what it might mean, in somewhat narrower terms, to talk of “pop” as a genre (alongside, and only partly overlapping with, genres like rock or heavy metal or alternative, or hip hop or crunk or grime or reggaeton. These days, invoking “pop” is inherently problematic: in some contexts, it sounds like a dated term from the 1960s; and in others, it bears a weight that certainly is not innocent, when it is invoked in relation to “rockism,” or when it is contrasted to music that is deemed more adventurous, more experimental, or more authentic.
Woebot raises the question with his usual sharpness and polemical verve in a thread on dissensus. I suppose it is a bit crass of me to respond with my thoughts here, instead of joining the dialogue there; but I need the space the blog affords me — rather than the rapid fire of post and response — to really work things out to my (at least semi-) satisfaction.
Anyway: Woebot doesn’t find the term “pop” to be either coherent or interesting; he works through several possible definitions, and finds them all to be lame, self-contradictory, and (to the extent that they do articulate any sort of identifiable tendency) worthy only of being resisted. It’s too vague, he says, to define “pop” as whatever music is in the charts, or to think that the Top Forty any given week somehow mirrors with precision what is happening in (American or British) society that same week. And it’s tired and unilluminating to trot out the old cliches of high culture vs. low. That doesn’t explain, Woebot says, what the positive appeal of “pop” — of defining “low” or “mass” culture in that populist way — might be, given so many other ways of working through the issue.
Which leaves the most polemically charged of Woebot’s possible definitions of “pop”: he suggests that it is just a marketing term:
When I discovered that by Pop music people meant “music for imaginary rather than real communities” I was depressed for about a month. That people could consume Grime as “Pop”, that they could do the pick’n’mix shake and vac ting and “consume” something oblivious to its source, well for me it just didn’t bear thinking about. That all music could be subjected to the whim of the consumer like this, that there were people out there for whom all music was essentially reducible to a quotient of it’s entertainment value (a mark out of ten, an “A” minus, a four star rating in their iPod ratings menu)…… sad innit. Each song becomes a unit, an equal unit, stripped of anything approaching life. How murderously void.
I think that there is a real issue here, an unavoidable one, since recorded music today really is on the leading edge of consumerist commodification. (A situation that is not really undermined by the nonetheless delicious irony that I, like millions of other people, choose on principle to download music for free as much as possible; I’ll spend hours of my time to find a song that I could order almost instantly from the Apple Music Store for 99 cents. This is not out of penny-pinching — since the time I waste tracking down the song is worth far more to me than 99 cents — but out of a kind of Kantian categorical-imperative sense that it is morally wrong to remunerate the record companies and the current copyright system).
Getting back to the main point: the fact is that music is one of the most social of all human activities (I risk this assertion despite the fact that all human activities are social, that ‘human’ and ‘social’ are virtually synonymous). Because music is so social and collective an activity, it is inevitably tied, in modern societies, to money and the commodity form (which capitalism makes into the primary, if not exclusive, conduits of sociality). Which paradoxically means, in turn, that music today is close to being the most reified and privatized of all human activities. I take myself as an example: a quintessential music consumer (even if I often don’t pay). I download music online, or order it over the web — I’m scarcely ever in one of those quaint old places formerly known as ‘record stores.’ I don’t listen to vinyl, or even very much to CDs: I rip whatever music I get in CD format, and listen to music almost exclusively over headphones, on my laptop or my iPod. Though I live in Detroit, a center of musical activity and production, I’ve never even gone to a live gig here, which means I’ve never listened to music here in the company of other people. What’s more, most of my favorite genres of the moment — grime, reggaeton, baile funk — are produced geographically far away from me, for audiences with whom I will probably never enter into contact (for reasons of race and class and age as well as geography). What’s more, I’ve ‘softened’ considerably since my twenties and early thirties, when I would never listen to music that was less grating than the Sex Pistols or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or less hardcore than Run/DMC, or less dissonant than Sonic Youth. Now I’m at the point where I listen to a lot of “pop”: my favorite songs of the moment include (alongside a bunch of heavy grime tracks) things like Amerie’s “One Thing” and Tweet’s “Turn Da Lights Off” and Tori Alamaze’s “Don’t Cha” and M.I.A.’s “Pull Up the People.”
I suppose this makes me into Woebot’s “Online Pop Straw-man”, listening to all sorts of cultural detritus indiscriminately while being ignorant of its particularities and its provenance, “cautious about aspiring to belong to subcultural groups (like, er, Grime) on the basis that he’s Middle Class, White and Old,” and ultimately only willing “to accept something less-threatening and fake in some compromised quasi-ironic manner. To give up on the real because it underlines the uncomfortable reality of one’s own situation.”
The very fact that I like M.I.A. so much pretty much convicts me of these charges. (“In fairness,” as Jerry Springer likes to say, Woebot never makes this point explicitly; but blissblogger — Simon Reynolds, I presume? — pretty much does, later on in the thread. Referring to the M.I.A. controversy, he complains about “the tone of sheer indignation voiced” by M.I.A.’s supporters responding to the criticisms of her: “how DARE you interfere with my pleasure, how dare you pose any impediment to my unproblematic enjoyment of this thing… that debate was so fierce because of a displacement involved… they weren’t defending M.I.A.’s right to be a dilettante-producer, they were defending their own right to be a dilettante-consumer… pop is invested in so intensely i think because it’s about the right to consume, and in this day age consumerism, that’s one of the few areas of power and agency anyone has”).
An anecdote: a couple of years ago, in a class I was teaching, a student gave a presentation on “underground hip hop,” and the dangers of its co-optation by the commercial manistream. His definition of what made the music “underground” was pretty vague; I pressed him, and he ultimately came to the position that it had to be music that I (as an outsider, from an older generation) had never heard of, let alone actually heard. But when it came down to listing specific examples of what he considered “underground hip hop,” it turned out all to be stuff that I was familiar with, and even had on my iPod.
My point in recounting this story is not to boast of my extensive musical connoisseurship (which really isn’t all that extensive, anyway). But rather to suggest that the widespread dissemination (precisely via reification and commodification, enabled by the global communications networks of transnational capital) of all sorts of music (together with all sorts of other things, from sexual fetishes to images of celebrities) makes any sort of “alternative” or “underground” position untenable. Even if you accept (as I am pretty much inclined to) that NOTHING is ever invented by Capital, that creativity is ALWAYS from below, from outside, from “the streets”… and hence in the public sphere, in that very “society” whose existence Margaret Thatcher denied — still, at the very moment that creativity is first expressed, it has already been privatized, commodified, locked up as “intellectual property,” and sold by massive corporations to individualized/privatized consumers worldwide. It has already become solipsistic jouissance, or what blissblogger describes as “the absolute denial of the producer’s existence — the absolute blanking out of the actual material origins and conditions of existence of the pleasure-source you’re enjoying — something for nothing.”
To decry this situation — as blissblogger and woebot seem to do — and to suggest there is a more acceptable alternative to it, is really to contribute to the very myths (of authenticity, of “realness”, of plucky underground inventiveness at odds with mainstream pop) that support the situation of capitalist appropriation and bourgeois-consumption-as-private-jouissance in the first place. Which is why I don’t accept woebot’s maxim that “meaning is always dwindling in Pop, it’s never accreating in the way it does in the underground rhizomes.” Rhizomes aren’t underground anymore; it’s the whole Net, the whole so-called “market”, that is now a rhizome (or, more accurately, that is now rhizomatic). And movements of both accretion and diminution are pretty much going on everywhere.
Or again: blissblogger says, summarizing the situation: “everything that once exploded into public space, becomes interiorized, corralled, quarantined from the world, insulated from ever changing anything.” Here it’s that “once” that I’m suspicious of; the same way I’m suspicious when Guy Debord writes that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” The point being, not that things are always the same, but that — in both blissblogger and the translation of Debord — the “once” has no historical applicability, for it is merely a back-projection from, and inversion of, our current circumstances. It’s a fictive negation of the oppressive circumstances of the present; it provides no path to freedom, no “line of escape,” for it is only a reflection and a symptom of the oppressive circumstances.
Which is why, though I don’t really think of myself as a devotee of “pop” — and in cultural politics terms I am not in the least a populist — I am also unable to join the anti-pop bandwagon. Brecht said somewhere that we shouldn’t start with the good old days, but with the bad new ones. I seriously think that the only way out is through, and that we have to find some way of working through the paradoxes of solipsistic, hedonistic consumerism, pushing them to their limit, rather than moralistically condemning them by refusing to listen to M.I.A. or go to Starbucks.
A Night at the Hip-Hopera, by the Kleptones, is the best mash-up I’ve heard, at least since Strictly Kev’s Raiding the 20th Century. (The Disney Corp. is taking legal action to suppress Hip-Hopera; the Kleptones are no longer allowed to host the mp3s on their own site. But they list other sites that carry the files; these won’t go offline until Disney gets around to contacting each of them individually with cease-and-desist orders. And if these don’t work, Google has a lot of links to it too).
A Night at the Hip-Hopera consists of music by Queen (whose copyright is owned by Disney, hence the cease-and-desist orders), together with vocal tracks taken mostly from various hip hop artists (both current and old skool, ranging from Afrikaa Bambaataa to Vanilla Ice to the Beastie Boys to Grandmaster Flash to Dilated Peoples to Missy Elliott) together with a few non-hip-hop bands (Electric Six, Morris Day), plus a montage of soundbites from (real and fake) news broadcasts, interview tapes, and old low-budget SF movies (not to mention attacks on copyright law and exhortations in favor of piracy/sampling/remaking). (There’s a fairly complete list of sample sources here).
Now, the name of the game in mash-ups of this sort is matching the vocal track with the musical track in some sort of convincing way. One strategy is purely musical/formal; The Freelance Hellraiser’s meld of The Strokes and Christina Aguilera a few years ago is the classic example of a mash-up that produces a hybrid pop song that’s superior to either of the originals. Another strategy is conceptual; thus Danger Mouse’s Grey Album combined Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album to provocative, if not always musically satisfying effect.
The Kleptones, however, take the art of mash-up as provocation to a new level. The album works both musically/formally and abstractly/conceptually, in a way that creates a wonderful cognitive-dissonance confusion. The choice of Queen as musical source is itself inspired, since they are so oddly contradictory: a monster success in their time, they represented the ne plus ultra of bombastic and ponderous arena rock, combining the worst of heavy metal declamation and prog symphonic pretentiousness; except that their pounding unilateral heavyhandedness was also leavened by a ludicrous, campy theatricality, and by a flirtation with disco. The macho implications of the music were constantly being undermined by Freddie Mercury’s performative excesses (even if nobody knew he was gay/bi at the time).
The contradictory strangeness of Queen is brought out and amplified by the way the Kleptones match their music to hip hop vocals. Sometimes the juxtapositions are just really weird (ODB’s “Got Your Money” over “Another One Bites the Dust”); other times they are wonderfully subversive (the quasi-fascist pounding of “We Will Rock You” becomes the backing for a militantly anti-racist rap, apparently by Killa Kela, with whom I am unfamiliar); still other times they suggest parallels and affinities where one would never have suspected them (the anthemic, soaring “Bicycle Race” melds all too perfectly with Eminem’s “Slim Shady” sarcasm: it’s hard to say here which one is a comment on the other).
Beyond these specific examples (and I could comment on the aptness/cleverness/revelatory force of just about every individual track), A Night at the Hip-Hopera as a whole excavates the fault lines that underlie Anglo-American popular music on the deepest levels: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, confrontation vs. entertainment, organic vs. mechanized, populist vs. elitist, artifice vs. sincerity, utopianism vs. cynicism, and so on. The rhythms of Missy Elliott or De La Soul oughtn’t to match with those of Queen, but somehow they do: yet this doesn’t efface the sense we have of totally separate musical universes somehow clashing and (at the same time) existing secretly in parallel.
Queen’s music is pretty white-sounding; by which I mean that it appropriates black musical sources (mostly the blues) but in doing so deprives them of energy, soul, funkiness, and grace, substituting a plodding insistence, a deadening literalism, and an almost unbearable earnestness. Yet this is the normative musical atmosphere we all (white, black, or other) live in, in American imperial culture today; black music (hip hop as much as blues) still today largely exists only to be appropriated, even when it is black artists themselves doing the appropriation (there’s more minstrelsy in hip hop than most of us would like to acknowledge). A Night at the Hip-Hopera somehow dramatizes this situation, with the way the various sources it orchestrates together are contradictorily made to cohabit with one another. At times the cognitive dissonance is too much; at other times, the consonance we are actually hearing override these dissonances. Voices of protest are chained to sounds of conformity (if only by virtue of Queen’s gigantism and lockstep rhythms); or is it that this depressingly massive and normative music is releasing bubbles of perversity and queerness even when we fail to notice? (I don’t think I’d be able to endure listening to an entire album of Queen’s greatest hits; but the Kleptones succeed in releasing the beauty and strangeness of these overly familiar dinosaurs). The album stages a series of anarchic clashes which themselves embody the transformative vitality that “popular culture” continues to offer, even when (at its frequent worst) it is being monopolistically controlled from above, and squeezed as tightly as possible into the straightjacket of the (heavily cross-promoted) commodity form.
I don’t believe in redemption; I’m suspicious of a con whenever it’s offered. But The Kleptones suggest a kind of reaching — precisely because they don’t paper over the contradictions that they are rubbing our ears in, but gleefullly insist on them — that turns even the corniness of Queen into something: not redemptive, quite, but at least possessing a secret reserve of utopian hope, of potentiality — a potentiality that can only be released when creativity is not constrained and chained by copyright, by so-called “intellectual property rights,” by the privatization of culture. So that A Night at the Hip-Hopera ultimately becomes a meta-commentary on its own mutant procedures. In other words, if this album is illegal (as it apparently is), then creativity, innovation, and joy are illegal too.
The final cut of the album is a soundbite collage, to the background accompaniment of Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever?” All the quoted comments relate to copyright and free expression, presented in various juxtapositions and with differing levels of irony. The last voice we hear says: “Without free communication, you don’t have a free society. Democracy’s based on it.” (Does anybody know the source of this?). That’s why A Night at the Hip-Hopera is such a brilliant and powerful accomplishment, and that’s why it needs to be disseminated as widely as possible, in deliberate defiance (if need be) of the law.
The book really is, as its title says, a manifesto: a public declaration of principles for a radically new vision, and a call to action based on that vision. It’s written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs or theses; the writing is tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a Wark himself likes to say, “abstract.” It’s not “difficult” in the way that certain “post-structuralist” philosophical texts (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult; rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized by an intense lucidity, as if the writing had been subjected to intense atmospheric pressure, so that it could say the most in the least possible space. Deleuze writes somewhere that an aphorism is a field of forces in tension; Wark’s writing is aphoristic in precisely this sense. I read the book with both delight and excitement, even when I didn’t altogether agree with everything that Wark said.
A Hacker Manifesto owes something — both in form and content — to Marx and Engels, and more to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a book about which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark’s ambition (which he calls “crypto-marxist”) is to apply Marx’s ideas to our current age of digitization and “intellectual property.” Unlike cultural marxists and “post-marxists” (who tend to refer to Marx’s general spirit more than his actual ideas), Wark focuses squarely on “the property question,” which is to say, on issues of economic production, of ownership of the means of production and the results of the production process, and therefore of exploitation and expropriation. Class is the central category of Wark’s analysis, and Wark defines class as Marx defined it, as grounded in people’s diverse relations to production and property, rather than using the vaguer sociological sense (a group of people with a common sense of identity and values) that is most often used today. It’s always a question of conflicting interests between the producers of value, and the legal owners who gain profit from the producers’ labor, and who control the surplus that the producers produce.
Modern capitalism begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when — in the wake of the decline of feudalism — wealthy landowners expropriate formerly common lands, reducing farmers or peasants to the status of (at best) paid laborers (but more often, landless people who own nothing, and can’t even find work). (This is the stage of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” a useful term that Wark oddly fails to employ). Capitalism then intensifies in the 18th and especially the 19th century, when industrial workers, in order to survive, must sell their labor to capitalists, who control the means of production, and who reap the profits from the massive economic expansion of industrialization. Wark sees a third version of this process in our contemporary Information Age, where the producers of information (understood in the widest sense: artists, scientists, software developers, and all sorts of innovators, anyone in short who produces knowledge) find their labor expropriated from them by large corporations which own patents and copyrights on their inventions. Wark calls the information producers “hackers,” and refers to the owners/expropriators of information as “the vectorialist class” (since “information” travels along “vectors” as it is reproduced and transmitted from place to place).
This formulation allows Wark to synthesize and combine a wide range of insights about the politics and economics of information. As many observers have noted, what used to be an information “commons” is increasingly being privatized (just as common land was privatized 500 years ago). Corporations trademark well-known expressions, copyright texts and data that used to circulate in the public domain, and even patent entire genomes. The irony is, that even as new technologies make possible the proliferation and new creation of all sorts of knowledge and information (from mash-up recordings to database correlations to software improvements to genetic alterations), the rules of “intellectual property” have increasingly restricted this proliferation. It’s paradoxical that downloading mp3s should be policed in the same way as physical property is protected from theft; since if I steal your car, you no longer have it, but when I copy your music file I don’t deprive you of anything. Culture has always worked by mixing and matching and altering, taking what’s already there and messing with it; but now for the first time such tinkering is becoming illegal, since the very contents of our common culture have been redefined as private property. As I’m always telling my students, under contemporary laws Shakespeare never could have written his plays. Though nothing is valued more highly in our world today than “innovation,” the rules of intellectual property increasingly shackle innovation, because only large corporations can afford to practice it.
Wark makes sense of these developments as nobody else has, by locating them, in his “crypto-marxist” terms, as phenomena of “the property question” and class struggle. “Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains” (#126). This means also that the struggle over information is more crucial, more central, than traditional marxists (still too wedded to the industrial paradigm) have been willing to notice. While previous forms of economic exploitation have often been (dubiously) justified on grounds of scarcity, Wark points out that for information this justification becomes completely absurd. Information is cheap and abundant, and it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring it under the rule of scarcity. This alone reveals the idiocy of “intellectual property.” Individual hackers (software engineers, say, or songwriters) might feel they have something to gain economically by controlling (and making sure they get paid for) the product of their particular informational labors; but in a larger sense, their “class interest” lies in free information, because only in that way do they have access to the body of information or culture that is the “raw material” for their own creations. And the fact is that, by dint of their ownership of this raw material, it is always the “vectorlist class” who will profit from new creations, rather than the creators/hackers themselves.
In making his arguments, Wark brings together a number of different currents. If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to the Situationists, it also draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the “virtual,” as well as Mauss’ theory of the gift. At the same time, it relates directly to the practices (and the ethos) of the free software movement, of DJs producing mash-ups, and of radical Net and software artists. (Indeed, much of the book originally appeared on the nettime listserv).
Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto comes from the way that it “abstracts” and coordinates such a wide range of sources. Wark argues that the power of “information” lies largely in its capacity to make ever-larger “abstractions”: “to abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations. To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (#008). Abstraction is the power behind our current servitude, but it is also the source of our potential expanded freedom. The regime of intellectual property abstracts away from our everyday experience, turning it into a controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the answer to this expropriation is to push abstraction still further, to unleash the potentialities that the “vectorialist” regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is already, in itself, such an act of further abstraction; it charts a path from already-existing forms of resistance and creation to a more generalized (more abstract) mode of action.
There are various points, I admit, at which I am not entirely convinced. Wark makes, for instance, too much of a separation between industrial workers and hackers, as between capitalists and vectorialists; this underestimates the continuity of the history of expropriation; I’d be happier with a term like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, vague and undefined as it is, than I am with Wark’s too-rigid separation between industrial production and knowledge production. Hardt and Negri have a more generous understanding than Wark does of the ways in which the information economy creates the common. I’m also, I fear, too cynical to accept the historical optimism that Wark in fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the world today, I think, in both rich countries and poor, our affective investments in commodification and consumerism are far too strong for our desires to really become aligned with our actual class interests (however powerful a case these theorists make for what those interests are).
Nonetheless, I don’t want to end this review on such a (mildly) negative note. If anything, I fear that my comments here have failed to give a sense of the full breadth of Wark’s argument: of the full scope of his references, of how much ground he covers, of the intensity and uncompromising radicality of his vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto succeeds in rousing people to action, it’s a book that anyone who’s serious about understanding the changes wrought by digital culture will have to take into consideration.
Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, the new book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is their sequel to their justly famous Empire.
Hardt and Negri are important thinkers — as I’ve said before, more than once — because they are thinking seriously and profoundly about how to renew marxism and the left in our current age of post-Cold War globalization.
Multitude isn’t quite as rich and surprising a book as Empire: but that was inevitable, both because it consolidates and restates what we already learned from Empire, and because it endeavors to be more immediate, more pragmatic than the earlier book.
Empire argued that globalization, and the end of the Cold War, had led to a new form of capitalist domination, one that differed in substantial ways from those of industrialization, colonialism, and imperialism. While transnational corporations, electronic communications and computing technologies, and a world market whose expansion is no longer checked or resisted by so-called “socialism”, have not ameliorated conditions for the enormous number of people around the world who live in poverty, they have certainly changed the rules of the game, the way power is exercised, the way economic and political structures are organized, and therefore the ways it might be possible to resist, and to change things. Hardt and Negri take for granted that we live in a “network society,” in which nation-states no longer exercise sovereign power to the extent they once did, and in which the fluidity of capital has eroded the welfare state and the status of the traditional working class. Their endeavor was to rethink marxist theory in such circumstances; they rejected both the orthodoxy that would cling to traditional marxist categories (like the proletariat and the vanguard party) regardless of changed circumstances, and the “post-marxists” who would throw out the baby along with the bathwater, arguing for a tepid reformism on the grounds that recent developments had made radical change henceforth impossible. Hardt and Negri instead argued, optimisitically, that in dissolving traditional categories of nationality, in “informatizing” everything, and in uniting points and processes around the world, globalized capitalism had in fact created new conditions for its own overthrow. Instead of opposing “globalization” for basically conservative and nationalistic reasons, they advocated a sort of hyper-globalization,one that actually fulfills the promises falsely offered to the people of the world by the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank.
In Multitude, Hardt and Negri flesh out this picture, by expanding on the possibilities for resistance and change, and by more explicitly linking their own philosophical project with recent radical activism (from the Seattle and Genoa protests to the Zapatistas). They define the “multitude” (which is their replacement for such defunct groupings as “the people” and the “proletariat”) as a collection of “singularities” who discover what they have in common, but without fusing into some sort of sovereign unity, the way “the people” and the “proletariat” were once supposed to do. This idea of the “common,” as that which brings together groups that remain different and disparate, is the link between Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomatic” logic of singularities and connections, on the one hand, and the actual practices of coalitions and affinity groups in the worldwide “anti-globalization” movement today, on the other. Hardt and Negri argue that the informatization and networking of everything leads to a greater production of the common than ever before: precisely because all social and economic production today is networked, leading to the “common nature of creative social activity” (132), and because of the increasing importance of “immaterial labor,” meaning work that produces “ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images, and other such products,” on the one hand, and emotions and relationships on the other (108). It is not that industrial work in factories is disappearing, but that such work itself is increasingly permeated by “immaterial labor” and “affective labor.”
What this means, ultimately, is that all of social reality — and not just some economic “base” — is being produced collaboratively, and in common. Traditional notions of private property are evidently nonsensical when applied to immaterial (and digitally reproducible) goods, like pop songs and software and the genomes of crops (which is why the attempts by media companies to enforce their copyright increasingly appear absurd and surreal). But even more conventionally physical goods, like automobiles and food, are now as much the products of collective knowledge (information technologies) as they are of the manipulation of raw materials; and they tend to be marketed at least as much for their affective qualities as for their pragmatic uses. There is no longer an economic sphere (what marxists traditionally called the “base”) separate from the spheres of culture, leisure, etc (the old marxist “superstructure”); rather, everything is cast into the same web and network.
More conventional Marxists see this situation (the loss of superstructural “autonomy”) as a dystopian nightmare. For Hardt and Negri, however, the increasing production of the common means that there is a more powerful basis for radical democracy and equality today than ever before in human history. Capitalism works by expropriating what human labor produces; in globalized “late capitalism” this means that capitalism expropriates everything, not just economic goods but cultural and affective life as well. But for Hardt and Negri, this means that the revolutionary reappropriation, by the multitude, of what it creates, can be equally all-embracing.
This basic thesis is backed up by a wealth of detail: not by those dubiously valid social science statistics, of course, but by considerations both philosophical and practical. Hardt and Negri write at great length about the structure (and lack of accountability) of supernational organizations like the IMF, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organizations), about the sorts of demands that global protest movements have been making, and about the problems involved in “scaling up” from democracy on a national scale (as in the United States, not as it actually does work, but as it is supposed to work according to the Constitution) to a global scale. They don’t claim to give a blueprint of “what is to be done,” but they try to work out the philosophical basis upon which a global truer democracy could function.
Basically, Hardt and Negri call for a massive act of imagination and reinvention — something that cannot be done by theorists, but that has to be thrashed out in the course of actual social and political practices of escape and transformation — and suggest the ways that concrete movements of reform can themselves help lead to these more radical outcomes (in rejection of the old marxist opposition between “reform” and “revolution”). They say that such radical reinvention is possible and thinkable, because its basis is already present in the world today, in our networks and information technologies, and in the extraordinary creativity of the poor, the disenfranchised, and migrants and immigrants, worldwide.
I find myself half persuaded by Hardt and Negri’s arguments. Their vision of multiple singularities, and of the production of a “common” which is yet not a fusion or a unity, is the best way I have come across for thinking about what is often regarded negatively as postmodern “fragmentation”, or as the death of “grand narratives” (Lyotard). This seems to me to be crucial understanding of the world we live in today: there’s nothing worse than when people on the left, as well as the right, call for some return to the “good old days” that never existed in the first place, and regard the present only as a case of woeful decline.
On the other hand, I think that Hardt and Negri’s willful optimism causes them to underestimate the difficulties of the endeavor they are calling for. Especially in the context of our post-9/11 state of eternal war (which they discuss in the first third of the book), I think that Bush and Osama, between them, would destroy the world before they would allow any flourishing of the multitude to take place.
There’s a wonderful passage in Multitude (190ff) where Hardt and Negri write of the way that political philosophy has traditionally seen the nation or the society as a body: Hobbes’ Leviathan is only the most famous use of this more-than-metaphor. The multitude, they say, can in this context only be seen as something monstrous, a disorganized agglomeration of flesh, since it rejects the sovereignty of the head over the other organs that is the central concern of Hobbes’ model (and that of all too many later political thinkers as well). Capital works, in the terms Hardt and Negri implicitly borrow from Deleuze, by separating the body politic from what it can do. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the multitude is a body without organs; it expresses its potentialities to the fullest by rejecting the restrictions imposed by the hierarchical organization of the organs.
While I find this image compelling, I can’t help being haunted by its inversion. In my picture, capital itself is the monstrous flesh, the body without organs, that we the multitude are forced to inhabit. This flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. But in our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, we don’t own it, or hold it in common. Rather we scurry about, in its folds and convolutions, like lice or fleas; or at best, we reprogram its code here and there, just a little bit, like viruses. It oppresses us, but we are stuck; we hate it, but we can’t live without it. Can we transform this parasitic, shadowy state of being into a form of resistance?
Ever since I started this blog, I have been doing my best to intentionally induce people to violate copyright laws by downloading unauthorized music files for free.
This may soon make me a felon, since the act recently introduced in the Senate by Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy (yes, the very one whom Dick Cheney told to “go fuck yourself”) makes the “intentional inducement of copyright infringement” an offense; the bill goes on to state that “the term ‘intentionally induces’ means intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures; and intent may be shown by acts from which a reasonable person would find intent to induce infringement based upon all relevant information about such acts then reasonably available to the actor.”
I’m happy to aid and abet copyright violation by pointing my readers to Kazaa and Soulseek, as well as by seeking rhetorically to move my readers to treat copyright laws with contempt and to refuse to abide by them.
Since I don’t really want to go to jail, or to face prosecution which would cost me much more money than I have to even begin to defend myself, I’m being a coward and saying this now, instead of waiting until the law is passed.