The Composition of Movements to Come: Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde

The Composition of Movements to Come: Aesthetics and Cultural Labour After the Avant-Garde

by Stevphen Shukaitis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783481736
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Series: New Politics of Autonomy Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stevphen Shukaitis is Lecturer in Work & Organization (Assistant Professor) at the University of Essex and is a member of the Autonomedia editorial collective.

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The Composition of Movements to Come

Aesthetics and Cultural Labor after the Avant-Garde

By Stevphen Shukaitis

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Stevphen Shukaitis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-174-3



Class Composition and the Avant-Garde

Revolutionary strategy is not something extra. It is an essential part of the study of the class relation. Though this relation is constantly shifting, though the nineteenth century is long gone, the two-sided nature of capital remains. Its analysis is not simple, but at the same time we have no vested interest in revelling in the supposedly incomprehensible complexities by which "professional Marxists" obscure the meaning of Capital.

— Harry Cleaver (1979: 64)

For all intents and purposes, the opening quote can illustrate that Harry Cleaver invented autonomous Marxism with his 1979 book Reading Capital Politically. This might seem like a strident and strange claim, living now decades after the death of the author, or the effacement of the subject rubbed out on the beach by the waves. Thus to claim that someone invented a new tendency of politics might seem even a bit laughable, if not delusional. Cleaver's invention of autonomist Marxism was much like the way Marx acted as midwife to Marxism, which is to say that his actions helped to enable a process that was already in motion to carry forward — not that he was the sole actor and instigator involved. The genius of Marx was not to act as a sole source of politics and analysis, but rather to draw from all the thought, creativity, and discontent found within the workers' movement of his time, which he then further developed in his myriad writings and speeches. The image of the author as sole figure conceals the manner in which underlying networks of knowledge and conversation — what Marx (1973) would call the development of the general intellect — flow above, around, and through the author as a device of expression. Cleaver's invention was not a summoning from nothing, but rather a bringing together of a whole series of debates, conversations, and analysis circulating through social movements of his time, and drawing them together in a new way.

With Reading Capital Politically, Cleaver helped to introduce into the English-speaking world a number of currents of dissident and heretical Marxism that were developing through the mid-twentieth century. Cleaver drew from the work of figures such as C. L. R. James and the Johnson Forrest Tendency, and recent currents of Italian Marxism developing outside the existing communist parties and trade unions. It's interesting that Cleaver was not really intending to write a book of social history, or trace a lineage of political thought. His stated purpose was to develop a set of concepts and an approach that would be useful in elaborating a political-strategic reading of the first chapter of Marx's Capital. The reading of that chapter fills the second part of the book, although interestingly enough it seems that Cleaver's text was read more for how it lays out and describes a series of connections between different social movements and the ways they could be understood as connected. This is a role that Harry has continued to take up in his writings in the decades since, drawing similar lines of resonance through the Zapatistas (1998).

The underlying connection that Cleaver makes is very simple but highly necessary: the recognition of autonomy. This is especially important when working within a Marxist framework, which historically has tended to subordinate all claims of the political importance of a given struggle to an overarching claim of the dynamics of class and exploitation as the primary and foremost contradiction to be addressed. This is not what Cleaver seeks to do; he argues against it. Rather, his argument is that when trying to understand the importance of radical black politics, feminist struggles, indigenous movements, and other emerging political formation, the starting point is from an acknowledgment and recognition of such movements' autonomy and importance on their own terms. This is to say, feminist politics are not important as they contribute to an understanding of class and exploitation (which they could and do), but are approached on their own merits and validity. Cleaver's insight is to start from and draw out the possibilities of such antagonistic moments from this recognition of autonomy. He describes this as a strategic reading of social dynamics, and it is an argument that will be central for the development of this book.

This is part of what I would argue is the key contribution and defining insight of autonomist Marxism, or autonomism more generally: the desire to not preclude in advance the emergence of new social subjects, even and especially from unexpected positions or social locations. It is an approach to the political, a search for new forms of radicality, that does not want to shut down in advance its possible territories. One can see how this insight operated in the activities of the early operaisti figures during the 1960s in Italy. Rather than paying attention only to the activities of unionized workers, or those located within organized political parties, attention was paid to the outbreak of wildcat strikes and expressions of discontent and rebellion by workers who were not involved in the existing forms of organization, whether parties or unions. The autonomist perspective enacts what Mario Tronti describes as a "reversal of perspective" (1979), drawing out the experiences and insights of those who have been excluded from existing and constituted forms of political organization. The core autonomist insight is that the emergent moment, and movement of antagonism, is thus also an epistemological opening — one that should be the point of starting analytical work. This is echoed by Deleuze's quite similar or constant argument that "the final word on power is that resistance is primary" (2006: 89). If the tendency is for Marxist analysis to be burdened by what J. K. Gibson-Graham would describe as its overly capitalcentric nature (2006), Tronti's reversal of perspective is to start from the moment of antagonism as a foundational perspective. This practice of starting from the moment of antagonism as its basis is broadened into a framework of class composition analysis understood as the ongoing interplay between the technical composition of labor in operation and the political composition of forces in motion.

The autonomist notion of class composition connects with what Cleaver describes as developing a strategic reading of Marxist concepts, by which he means that he does not wish to attempt some impartial understanding of them, but rather that he seeks in Marx's thought weapons for use in class war. For Cleaver the importance of this strategic reading, as opposed to a tactical understanding, is that it "allows us to grasp the basic form of the class war, to situate the different struggles which compose it" (1979: 10). In arguing this, Cleaver puts forward a very specific notion of a strategic reading, one that reserves this possibility for the position of the working class. Thus, in doing so Cleaver rejects philosophical readings of Marx or the approaches that start from an attempt to grasp the dynamics of capital in a more analytical or structural way. Opposed to these, Cleaver rather proposes a reading that

self-consciously and unilaterally structures its approach to determine the meaning and relevance of every concept to the immediate development of working-class struggle. It is a reading which eschews all detached interpretation and abstract theorising in favor of grasping concepts only within that concrete totality of struggle whose determinations they designate. (1979: 11)

A strategic reading is to grasp the class compositional dynamics of a situation immanent to the unfolding development of that social composition. It is precisely not to attempt to seek some exterior vantage point from a neutral analysis that can be conducted. This might seem to go against the use of the image of bird of prey in the preface, for it might seem that the hawk is indeed in a removed and transcendent position. But this is not the case, as the distance does not mean a removal from the territory, but rather a relationship to it. Similarly, Cleaver argues that the demand that each category be explicitly related to class struggle is not a reductionist framing, an attempt to reduce everything to class struggle. Rather he argues that class struggle is not "independent, outside cause of the categories and relations" — it is "the confrontation of the capitalist class's attempt to impose its social order — with all its categories and determinations — and the working class's attempts to assert its autonomous interests" (1979: 65). The strategic reading has no outside from which to operate. It seeks to compose a moment of variability, whether in terms of speed or time, from within the ongoing dynamics of class formation, decomposition, and recomposition that are at work. This is not a failure to find a transcendent position to operate from, but rather to claim that this is not even possible if it was desirable, as Cleaver proposes that there "is no third, objective point above the struggle, because revolutionary activity reveals the other side everywhere" (1979: 65).


The goal of this book, then, following what Harry Cleaver proposes, is to develop a strategic-political reading of avant-garde artistic practices. One might be tempted to call it Reading the Avant-garde Politically, to follow a similar format in the arrangement of the title. Similar to Cleaver's desire to distinguish his approach to reading Marx from other forms of more philosophical or structurally oriented Marxism, here this will take the form of drawing a distinction between more art historical or sociological approaches to understanding the avant-garde. That is not to say that nothing is of use within art history, sociology, philosophy, or other areas. Indeed, much can be gained by drawing widely from different areas, and this text would suffer severely if it did not do so. As Guy Debord has suggested (1983: 182), any area of knowledge that has become autonomous to itself, such that it only needs to answer to the criteria it has set to justify its own relevance, is a worthy candidate for collapse and destruction. This could be argued about the ways that the current architecture of disciplinary boundaries operates within academic knowledge production — where it is precisely the maintenance of the boundaries that often serves to block the generation of continued inquiries not bounded within already circumscribed categories. In this book the approach adapted will be more akin to the approach that Kojin Karatani(2005) describes as "transcritique," which for him is found working between ethics and political economy. Here the transcritical work will take place between an analysis of aesthetics, culture, labor, and the formulation of the political that such makes possible.

This is precisely the point that Franco "Bifo" Berardi makes for why he rejects using the category of "operaismo" to name the current of autonomist Marxism from Italy with which he is associated. For Bifo the essential theoretical contribution consists in "the reformulation of the problem of political organization in terms of social composition" — a reformulation that "abandons the Leninist notion of the Party as collective intellectual and leaves open the notion of the intellectual itself" (2009: 64). This is what underpins his rejection of "operaismo" as a term, precisely for the way it can be seen to involve an implicit reduction of who is being referred to: the workers. Bifo proposes what he describes as a "compositionism" as opposed to operaismo, as the focus expands from a focus only on labor to draw from a multitude of realms and forms of knowledge — arguably pushing forward the perspectives underpinning autonomist thought and taking them further. For Bifo, understanding the process of social recomposition, at both material and imaginary levels, "resembles much more a chemical composition than the mechanical accumulation of organizational forms" (2009: 143).

Although this book will devote attention to tracing lines of historical influence between different trajectories of avant-garde art production, exploring the social context in which the practices explore operate, and so forth, this is not the main task. The purpose here is to return constantly to the image of thought, and orientation thinking, provided by the metaphor of the circling hawk. The question for any avant-garde practice thus becomes a compositional question: What does it make possible in the process of social composition it is embedded from and emerges out of? How does it contribute to the political practices and activities that it is related to? The analysis developed here will follow on in the way that Deleuze (1995) gestures to when asking very "functionalist" questions about avant-garde practice: looking at what they do for the social milieus they operate in, more so than asking what they mean.

We're strict functionalists: what we're interested in is how something works, functions — finding the machine ... The only question is how anything works, with its intensities, flows, processes, partial objects — none of which mean anything. (Gilles Deleuze, 1995: 21 — 22)

What kinds of social movement, of organizing potentials, are created though the practices? These are not questions of meaning but intensities, flows, and processes. This is to approach avant-garde aesthetics not from a perspective of Kantian universalism, but more from exploring the continued distribution; and distribution of the sensible (to use Jacques Ranciere's phrase) takes part in an ongoing process of social movement formation. How do avant-garde practices shift what is said, and how it can be said? What moments of affective contagion are transmitted through avant-garde practices? As Gavin Grindon suggests, the autonomist notion of political composition is important precisely for the way it "identifies as political moments of otherwise invisible or illegible performative social relation. These are often primarily affective, emotional, sensory and possess a fugitive history in official discourses, even as they compose more visible social struggles" (2011: 86). To approach avant-gardes from this angle is also to shift the criteria of success — moving from questions of aesthetic success to those of collective composition. Richard Kostelanetz argues that the basic measures of avant-garde work are "aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability" (1993: ix). A compositional analysis would start from this but include how these dynamics connect to broader processes of class structure, to dynamics of social and political composition. How do avant-garde practices take part in facilitating a process of collective composition — of changing the relations between bodies and minds in movement? By asking this, it is perfectly possible to come to the realization that bad art can be connected to good politics, and as more often observed (often through the connection of fascism and avant-garde currents), really interesting and compelling art can be paired with reprehensible politics (Hewitt, 1993).

But perhaps we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Perhaps it would be best to take a few steps back before proceeding and to ask more basic questions. What is meant today by the avant-garde? What is the avant-garde today? Or, more fundamentally, is there even an avant-garde today, or is this a concept and framework that has been surpassed, as Hilton Kramer (1974) claims? Or worse yet, the avant-garde has become a cliché, where it finds itself reduced to "existing as an unfolding reaction to its own history," as Adam Parfrey claimed almost twenty years ago (1987: 115).

I tend to agree with the claim that Marc Léger makes: The absence of the avant-garde today is only apparent; instead of being a readily socially visible, "the avant-garde idea continues to operate as the repressed underside of contemporary forms of extradisciplinary practice" (2012: 2). It does seem anachronous to suggest that political struggle could have a leading or vanguard point, one that would be advanced in the artistic and cultural sphere by daring forms of artistic practice. So what does it mean to discuss the avant-garde once it is detached from all the metaphysical and political baggage that is historically attached to it, much of which is explicitly rejected by the autonomist current of politics? Or perhaps more troubling, it might not be possible to detach the notion of the avant-garde from such baggage, from associated notions of historical progress and development, that it might be associated with (Allen, 2016).

Against this worry the gambit employed in this book is that it is possible to separate strategic thinking from this historical-political baggage. I would argue that today it is not the role of the avant-garde to take up a leadership position in social struggles. It never was. When F. T. Marinetti published the first Futurist Manifesto in Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, it included the statement, "Time and space died yesterday" (1973: 19). Thus, even from this first moment, it can be seen that the notion of leading time, of bringing forth radical political change at the cusp of history, has been rejected because its position is simply implausible, even laughable. Although there is much to disagree with in Marinetti's arguments, much can be said for how he follows the claim about the death of time (years before the so-called neoliberal declaration of the end of history) with the argument, "We already live in the absolute." The question then becomes finding a way to inhabit and make livable this absolute — how to act from a position from which there seem to be no good options.


Excerpted from The Composition of Movements to Come by Stevphen Shukaitis. Copyright © 2016 Stevphen Shukaitis. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements / Let’s Take the First Bus Out of Here: A User’s Guide / 1. Introduction: Class Composition and the Avant-Garde / Part I: Territories: Psychogeography / 2. Theories made to die in the war of time / 3. Metropolitan Strategies, Psychogeographic Investigations / Part II: Art/Work Sabotage / 4. Can Creative Practice Break Bricks / 5. Learning Not to Labor / Part III: Institutions: Overidentification / 6. Fascists as Much as Painters / 7. Icons of Futures Past / 8. Coda: The Composition of Movements to Come / Bibliography / Index

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