Free spirits, fairy dust & free-markets: some notes on the post-political

Ive been doing some reading recently around the post-political – largely contexualised as post-cold war political philosophy.

I’m trying to apply some of the insights offered by the likes of Jacques Ranciere and Slavoj Zizek to the contemporary situation we find ourselves in in early twenty-first century Britain, and how/whether we can find a way out of the current throes of capitalism.

Then an interesting thing happened, a handful of really prescient stories and ideas converged on me. Here’s a summary…

I was stirred to recap on the post-political by the excellent blog post by Dan McQuillan who examines the seventeenth-century English radical Antinomians in light of the contemporary Anonymous and – to an extent – #Occupy movements.

Fascinatingly both groups seem to reject any attempt at formal, strategic opposition to dominant structures and forces. Instead, such groups adopt a tactic of detachment in which they go about their aims without giving credence to authority’s  anticipated or expected responses. far from entering into power structures, both the Antinomians and Anonymous envision and produce another world. And this in turn is their strategy. It’s a de-strategy.

Highlighting this tactically productive approach, Dan’s post draws a lineage from the heresy of the medieval proto-antinomians, the Free Brethren of the Free Spirit, through to the radical seventeenth-century Antinomians and on to contemporary hackers. A timely reminder that struggles against authority and oppression are nothing new and that revisiting previous excursions into sites of radical action may bring new ideas and new ways of acting.

Then, just as I’m getting into the post-politics at a more contemporary level I come across the excellent chapter, On Fairy Dust and Rupture, in the even more excellent book, Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why its Kicking Off Everywhere.

Penned by the The Free Association the chapter seeks to account for the intrinsic faith people have in capitalism as viable system – a faith that, on the face of it, could be considered a ‘magic’ quality – and how this internalised logic can be tackled and shown for what it is: a sorcery created and maintained by a range of forces operating explicitly and implicitly; at a structural level and at an individual level.

For the authors, the fairy dust refers (via The Troggs!) to an unknown quality that can transform something mundane or everyday into something that exceeds the sum of its parts. “Fairy dust,” they argue “invokes the need for a gamble, a roll of the dice, an experiment.” [p.29].

The authors go on to map out ways this fairy dust can be sprinkled on actions and events and how these one-off ‘ruptures’ can be built upon to spread greater and deeper social and economic change. The spark of nature’s fire that could trigger new antinomian movements, so to speak.

And finally, coming hot on the heels of reading this a friend shared Adam Curtis’ latest blog post on the Soviet stagnation of the 1970s/80s and the responses undertaken by a disaffected youth.

Curtis’ prescience and the dimensions through which he explores seemingly mainstream topics generally unnerves me, and this post is no exception. In it, Curtis plots similar themes tot he ones I’ve been tracing – but from a different angle: the post-political Soviet end of history as The Plan began to fail.

Curtis’ piece is amazingly timely as it looks at how soviet art and cultural movements of post-political Russia sought to reject soviet communism and, realising if offered an equally – if more subtle – totalitarian system, liberal democracy.

Curtis presents a critical appraisal of the economic and social (i.e. human) failures of the soviet system in ways that cannot fail to generate resonance with the reality of our Western society today.

This is especially powerful as Curtis succeeds where others (save for the radical left) have failed. Offering a genuine critique of Britain in the here and now is difficult as The Free Association’s ‘sorcery’ of capitalism maintains its hold creating either a denial or an awe of the system.

Yet Curtis’ analogy is hugely powerful as it shows how the great Soviet Plan entered into increasingly illogical and absurd spasms as it attempted to predict and manage the complex demands of the population.

It would be easy to laugh at the examples given by the scientists and economists as they explain their predicament were it no for the increasingly absurd lengths we see capitalism going to in its attempt to shore up the yawning gap between the economic, material reality and the glossy, consumer driven fiction all around us.

Curtis concludes with the somewhat bleak transition of Soviet Russia to a pseudo-Liberal Democratic Russia where the radicals of the post-political 1970s have either committed suicide (quite a few seemed to go that way, interestingly) or embraced the far-right or liberal democracy or, in the case of Vladislav Surkov, both.

That is is why Dan’s post and The Free Association are so important. They point us towards practical tactics and ideas for conjuring a way to another world.

Back to the post-political and searching for ways out.

The Network is dead, long live the network

The Network is dead, long live the Network

We’re all talking about networks nowadays. Like the internet unleashed a realisation that our lives are, in fact, a lot more interconnected and complex than we used to imagine.

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But what exactly do we mean when talk about networks? And how can we make better use of them in planning and managing the complexity around us?

I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking around the subject for my PhD of late (it’s going well, thanks!) and thought Id share some of my meandering thoughts.

If you’ve read my blog previously – or seen me present – will know that I’ve mentioned  Manuel Castells a few times before.

Castells gave us the term ‘Network Society’ in his series of seminal studies of the ways in which the network form has become the basic unit of organisation in our post-industrialist world:

“Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operations and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power and culture.” 

In later work Castells also looked at how power – as communication power – is shaped by networks.

But despite Castells’ legacy, the more I read and thought about and experienced networks I couldn’t help find Castells’ work – although compelling – unsatisfying.

For example, trying to get my head around how networks produce qualitative differences characterised as complexity  I found that Castells’ logical or structural analyses that address quantitative differences, for example, the increased connectivity of network making more things happen and faster couldn’t adequately account for the full range of networked phenomena we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Thinking about this I decided that the problem might lie with Castells interpretation of networks from the perspective of technological evolution, that is: as telecommunications networks.

While this enables us to view different elements of our world as being networked, it locks us into thinking of networks as point-to-point systems of communication or organisation. Castells applies this analysis to social groups, businesses, political campaigns, etc.

But what about if we consider that rather than the Network Society arising thanks to newly empowering technology – whether the telegraph or the smartphone – networks, in fact, constitute our existence at a much deeper level as well as manifesting how we live or experience our lives.

This perspective comes to the fore perhaps most vividly in the work of Gilles Deleuze (and also his work with Felix Guattari) who gives us a different interpretation of network: as a rhizome.

Firstly, (and without getting too deep into Deleuze’s philosophy!) we need to unpick the idea of the rhizome which is actually a sort of metaphor (or ‘image of thought’ in Deleuze’s lexicon) to account for Deleuze’s broader philosophy of difference or multiplicities.

Rhizomes, then, are a type of networks constituted as “a series of productive connections with no centre or foundation” (Colebrook 2002, 156).

What this means is we have a way of interpreting networks as a potential form for endlessly connecting things in the world in a way that produces complexity.

Another theorist that has adopted rhizomatic networks, Bruno Latour, complains that Castell’s dominance in network thinking has led to a situation whereby the concept of the network unproblematically accounts for the transformation of things (information mainly) without “deformation”. On the contrary, the rhizomatic network that Deleuze and Latour discuss bring about “transformations” that problematise the point-to-point linearity of telecommunication networks.

So Deleuzian networks are systems of emergence with unknowable outcomes – or at least engender a complexity which makes knowing or predicting outcomes difficult. As such, they connect people and things to one another in ways that ensure an always open and endless flow of possibilities.

In short, I reckon you could summarise the difference by saying:

  • Castellian networks connect and organise
  • Deleuzian networks produce and disorganise

As vague and abstract as this might sound I believe it gets us closer to a better understanding of the potential for networks to account for the world around us – both as we exist within it as well as how it organises our lives.

I’ll hopefully follow this post up with a more applied look at rhizomatic networks and their relation to assemblages, something Anthony Mayfield and Dan McQuillan have already started to explore.

[Image courtesy of Sevensixfive on Flickr ]

New from Escalate: Salt

I’ve blogged about the Escalate Collective before; they’ve produced some pretty excellent critique and analysis.

After months of silence they’ve published a new – and much lengthier – response to the current politics. I’ve not got around to reading it all yet, but I anticipate great things.

Enjoy.

United we stand…

With news reporting people in the UK surviving on less than £20 per week

With news reporting that despite healthy profits and rising executive salaries, the supermarkets pay ‘poverty wages’ to their employees

Maybe Zizek’s right: “the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege”.

Is there a solution?

Networks, roots and relationships: a sign

Returning to work after the Xmas/new year break I found a surprise on my desk.

Someone from Brazil – still unsure who – had sent me a gift package from the fabulous sustainable and eco-friendly skin and bodycare people, Natura.

Aside from some lovely natural cosmetics the package also included this insert with an inspiring inscription which I wanted to share:

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It’s also a very presceint inscription as I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about networks – including the organic variety – of late. I’ll take this gift as a sign to share my thinking.