“RESISTANCE & EXPERIMENT”
(Transcript of a roundtable discussion with Nina Power, DC Miller, Louis Armand & Vít Van Camp, which took place during the Prague Microfestival at Punctum, 28 April 2019, following a performance by Power & Miller entitled “EXPERIMENTAL EXIT.”)
VÍT VAN CAMP: We’re very glad to have you & of course it wasn’t easy – numerous “interesting” events have happened on the way which have garnered the attention of certain segments of the social media across the political spectrum. (Nina & Daniel have been accused – by those who have taken upon themselves the role of policing critical discourse – of transphobia & pursuing a “fascist turn.” We ourselves have been accused of being fascist sympathizers for hosting this event.) And perhaps these issues will be addressed in the following discussion with the audience as well. Right now I’d like to tilt things towards your actual project. To what extent do you consider it to be theoretical & to what degree do you consider it to be aesthetic? Where does the difference lie for you? The language you made contact with, there was an esoteric tradition which we encountered, a revolt against the modern world, & there seemed to be this aspect of a language which is, aesthetically, coming from the past – even a Biblical past. Most of the people here regard you as theorists, or writing from a theoretical background, & this fusion of two worlds is quite interesting.
NINA POWER: I think one of the questions for me at the moment, today, is how much we concede to a certain image of modernity. And I think there is a kind of flattening both on the acceptance of the status quo &, on the left, that it’s the only game in town. And I think we concede too much to modernity, as if the world has become enclosed & homogeneous. But this is to misunderstand the role of myth & the role of the sacred, & to not pay attention to the myths of modernity itself, but also to accept an intensely gloomy & fundamentally critical position that requires us to accept the world as it is – & it doesn’t seem to me that this is either a good starting point for action or for contemplation, in fact. And if one’s goal is to change things for the better, there is a sense in which that kind of depressive, critical, left miserablism is profoundly disabling.
DC MILLER: I think one could ask a question about how you situate yourself in time & space in the world we’re living in: what’s our horizon of experience with respect to that world? There’s a temporality which is generated as some kind of newspaper logic, or social media logic, where there’s always something new, a status update. But there’s also an idea of an older, perhaps deeper, somewhat less frantic relationship to the kind of space we’re in, as people who are alive right now. I mean, who are we, actually, in this world? You have a name, you have a passport, we have all these labels we’re using to describe ourselves or other people, & I think the question of language – the language that one uses – is a question also of one’s ability to describe reality. I don’t think it’s necessarily esoteric, it’s only that there’s a kind of language that’s generated at high volumes & the ability of that language to tell you what you need to know is questionable: there’s always indeed a political power that’s operating on language in order to deform it in a particular way. I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy which is operating in order to do that, or something which is more subjective – whereby its just different people with different agendas distorting things so that other people become confused. I think the project of ceasing to be confused is the most valid project one could have for oneself. It’s not even a political project but the reality is that if you attempt to do that you will come into confrontation with political forces who want you to speak in a certain way, to repeat certain kinds of slogans, to make certain kinds of statements. As you mentioned, there’s been controversy with respect to us, but the truth is we’re not people who are interested in promoting any kind of political message, it’s really the opposite. And that for some reason makes us very threatening to people who are committed to that kind of language.
LOUIS ARMAND: I don’t think there’s any kind of enunciation or statement that can be non-political. So the question is how we’re using the word political: if you’re speaking specifically of dogma, or dogmatism, as opposed to ideology in general. Because simply to speak, to signify, is going to involve some kind of system of meaning, which is ideology. I’m interested in what Nina had to say about the myth of modernity & the perception of modernity corresponding to certain things – particularly a system of reason – that apparently dispel myth, the spiritual, & in which everything is reduced to a level of mechanization. Yet at the same time what sustains this idea is the counter-myth of open-ended production, the myth of open-ended consumption, the myth of the commodity, & you have this contesting of power between a mystification of reason & a mystification of unreason which presents itself as an appeal to a certain clarity & positions itself as self-evident & therefore beyond the political. So I’d be interested if you could come back to addressing the notion of the political with regard to this kind of ideology of self-evidence & the power attached to that.
NP: I would disagree that everything is political in a certain sense. When we are talking about the polis & thinking about where that word comes from – it’s the same word we get “police” from – the polis is a particular part of the configuration of the social, there is always the oikos, the household, which wasn’t the polis. Only certain people could participate in the polis & the polis was always governed & policed. Even in Plato there are certain dialogues that are set outside the city walls, like the Phaedrus, where they talk about love – which isn’t capturable by the logic of the political. We could say, of course, that the moment you start speaking you’re a signifying being, that you have meaning within a system & that the system itself is political & therefore there’s nothing we can say outside politics. But I wonder if there isn’t something to be said for pushing against that idea. Because what we have at the moment, it seems to me, is this very very homogenous thing. It may be predicated on people’s desire to be good, to be seen to be a good person – I mean, who doesn’t want to be a good person? to be a good political person & say the right thing & support the right people? Everybody wants this, it’s a felt pressure, & if you go against that in any kind of way you’re punished really severely. And what Daniel says about trying to see that there are things that aren’t political, that shouldn’t be included, is itself a transgression. I’m interested in why those sorts of claims are seen as transgressive. We’re accused of fascism, of Nazism. If we’re talking about nature, there’s been this absolute pushback against any discussion of an “outside,” & I think of this as symptomatic of the internet, of this online life in which one is punished for suggesting there is anything beyond a certain discourse, a set of slogans & clichés which we must all repeat in order to be good people. It’s a fearful discourse, it’s a terrible discourse, & I don’t want to live in that world.
DCM: I think it’s only with a modern conception of society & with a mobilization of society – in fact a total mobilization – that you could arrive at the notion that everything is political. This is quite a modern idea. From a pre-modern perspective there are all kinds of things that are certainly not inscribed into a political logic – ideas of, for example, virtue, which aren’t political as such. To be in love with somebody is not necessarily political. There are modes of experience & of relating to experience which are not even relating to the human & therefore are not political. The commitment to politicize – one should ask, what are the forces that are driving such an agenda, & for what end, & for whose ends? And I think those ends are not the ends of individuals, necessarily, but of organized political forces that are committed to saying that everything is political because it means that in that way those parties have control over everything, based on the political authority they themselves are claiming.
LA: This may be a matter of terminology. I would perhaps go back & say that there’s often an appeal to things that in the history of philosophy have been classed as metaphysical & which create a realm of exception to the political. Or that the ideological is somehow metaphysical & isn’t manifest in material conditions. Daniel gave a very good example in his performance, of the summoner: that it is the demon that summons the summoner (& not the contrary). I tend to think that this is in fact a “logic capture.” As soon as you enter into the situation (of the summoner), you are determined by that situation, & for me this is the character of the political. So when Nina was speaking about stepping outside the requirements of a certain ritualistic or dogmatic arrangement in which social meaning is determined – a rigid signification – this is trangressive, not because it really affects a transgression, but because the transgressive relation to a nominal outside is itself delimited by the asymmetry of power. Consequently it’s predetermined as a political action with regards to that framework. In any case, by questioning a system of value that determines that what you are doing is either good or bad, or conforming or nonconforming, & then attributing to that some motive or another, you are in the position of the summoner summoned by the political. So my provocation here would be: is this not a mystification on the side of power? Because – & I want to make a loose connection with what Vít called esotericism – because when one actively transgresses, motives are necessarily implied – in fact they’re required – whether it’s within a legal framework (what are the motives of someone who committed a crime, which is the business of a court to determine) or socially when someone signifies in a particular way which isn’t in conformance with the “agreed” system of signification: what are the motives behind doing that? You mentioned the Phaedrus – or perhaps the Sophist is a better example – & in these dialogues we see that determining such motivations, these hidden to-be-revealed meanings behind actions, is ostensibly impossible: there’s no way to delimit those significations, so power determines what they are.
NP: I think that what it does reveal is that, even at the level of content, the “right thing to say” changes from week to week, which is important to note. But if we think about it in terms of the logic of sacrifice, or of the scapegoat mechanism, weak groups always need to keep sacrificing members or former members in order to maintain even a loose coherence. René Girard talks about this. There’s a long history of what it means to be a scapegoat, to be named, punished, for one’s transgressions – perceived or otherwise – whether there’s evidence or not. And when we speak of the virtual & the real: what does it mean to be “bloodlessly” sacrificed online? To have people calling for you to be beaten up in the street & so on. It’s an interesting experience. You start to think about it structurally as well: what function, what role are you playing? And you have to ask about your own enjoyment: is it enjoyable to be the scapegoat in some way? It’s a very complicated question of desire: the desire of the group & individual desire.
DCM: The question of power is a good one & the right one. There are different forms of power. There’s a certain tradition of thinking about power where one imagines it as somehow always being an oppressive force, but of course that’s not the reality. I think that one has to distinguish, on the one hand between different forms of power – for example political power, symbolic power, moral power – from, on the other hand, a power which is metaphysical, which is not purely political but is something productive of reality on a very deep level. The sun has power & there’s a power that transmits through the chain of being to create all forms of life. And what is, as an individual, one’s relationship with this power? One can be weaker of stronger, one can be kept weaker, one can also to some extent take charge of one’s own power, one can have a sense of one’s own power, to consider oneself as powerful or powerless, as potent or impotent. From the point of view of whatever political message I might have for anybody is to look to their own conscience & think for themselves, to refuse to accept that somebody has the right to tell you what to think, actually, or who to associate with, or what opinions are the right ones or the wrong ones, or what discussions you are allowed to have or not allowed to have, or what books you’re allowed to read. I mean, who are these people? These people are nobodies, actually. I think that to have a power that is distributed so that individual people can decide for themselves how they want to live their lives – this is certainly threatening from the perspective of a certain form of power, but it’s certainly not supporting any power-as-such.
NP: Yes & on this point I’d like to thank Louis & the organizers for not backing down in the face of online pressure. There’s a question of courage: it’s very easy for people to go with the dramatic opinions of random anonymous people online & we all need to think about what those things mean. Why are people so taken with these anonymous open letters or tweets or threats of no-platforming, of losing one’s job? We have people on the left, allegedly, trying to deprive people of their livelihoods – to deprive them of any kind of economic status – which doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly leftist position. And when people tell you that you can’t read second-wave feminist texts anymore because they say the “wrong” thing, what gives them the authority? In terms of reading the history of reactionary or rightwing thought, like George Steiner, the “Roots of the Right” series, everyone should read this stuff – everyone should read & understand for themselves what these arguments are, what rightwing ideology is. For someone else to come along & say, “no no no you shouldn’t read it, oh I can tell you what to think, you shouldn’t read it, it’s bad” – that is an abusive form of power. And when people say they are victims, that they are somehow damaged by the history of human thought, & that others should be protected from dangerous ideas, is to profoundly imperil thinking. I don’t want to live in that world. I don’t want to live in a world where the heirs of textile fortunes tell everyone else what to think, who should be listened to, who should be heard – naming no names.
LA: To refer to another figure of the great tradition, when Mao says that it is necessary to draw a clear line between ourselves & the enemy, of course this is premised on a knowledge of what constitutes the enemy – which is an age-old morality in any case. Know thy enemy. And the appeal that concerns me – & I believe it should concern everybody – is an appeal to a systemic ignorance, equivalent to book burning. This is something that – to be generous to it – needs to be subjected to a “concrete analysis.” But I wanted to come back to something Nina said at the beginning, about not accepting the world as it is, & returning to the notion of the means of production of reality, when we’re speaking of the power to exercise upon the real & consequently to determine in some sense how the individual, how subjects, are constituted. This is again an old question. But perhaps it can be reframed here, in the context of this discussion, not so much as a question of individual emancipation as Daniel was earlier alluding to, but as a responsibility of the intellectual or the artist to put into question not just the world as it is presently constituted for me, or the means of production of its reality for me, but to effectively block or destabilize them as systems – whether through experiment or resistance – & how that is to be affected within a context where there are accepted means of doing this (the institution of art, the performance of resistance as an art piece) or where we can assume certain stakes & certain risks & be accused of acting outside the realm of permitted dissent. This is one of the questions that is being raised by the nature of calling dissent itself into question, as we have seen.
DCM: It’s a very complicated question, because on the one hand I think it’s important that everyone takes responsibility for themselves & for their own desire, as it were. You don’t want to be in a pervert position where you’re saying, “I’m doing this on your behalf.” There has to be, on the level of the individual, a commitment. And then the further question is, what does an individual commit to? What is a, let’s say, more noble commitment or less noble one, & how does resistance fit into that, or action, or activism – which need not be the same thing? The question of the world, also, as it’s constituted: there are many worlds, in a way. I think the attitude of resistance to the world as such is probably a mistake on some level: one should accept the world as it is & ask oneself what sort of possibilities exist within that world, what risks do you want to assume, what kind of wagers do you want to make? To be honest, it’s not entirely unenjoyable, either, to be in the position where you’re facing a group of people who are so committed to something which is so dishonest that you don’t have to do very much to articulate what is worth fighting for. And it’s quite surprising to me, because I remember beforehand, years ago, I was more interested in the possibility of something more dramatic in terms of ideology – in terms of a kind of revolutionary ideology – but it turns out that you don’t really need to be that revolutionary, you don’t actually have to take those extreme positions, you just have to remain committed to convictions that, if you approach them in an objective way, few people would disagree with in principle. Simply by holding fast to those, your enemies come to you.
LA: Reaction always imagines the worst.
NP: Maybe it’s a war over the concept of time, in a certain way. There’s a sense in which there’s always a sense of urgency: activism is always about the urgency of doing something now – something must be done – & this often works against any form of dialogue, of discussion, of the idea that we might reach a different position through communication or debate, or understanding our supposed enemies or opponent’s position. There simply isn’t the necessary dimension of time. And this ends up in a lot of action without thought – a lot of very definitive claims & positions being taken up – which then leads people, paradoxically, into a quite vicarious position vis-à-vis their own lives. They don’t stop to think about their own role, it’s simply “I must do this, because we’ve been told we must do this, & we must act now.” When the state comes for you, on the other hand – the actual state & not these micro-police running around telling you what you can & cant do – it has time on its side. The state has all the time in the world. It can spend years punishing you, or putting you into a kind of legal limbo. And there is a deeper metaphysical question that underlies the question of politics & what politics is, maybe, which has to do with how we relate, how we maintain calmness in the face of relentless time-control & the power of the temporal, how we can avoid falling into traps ourselves in terms of responding, reacting, to the constant mantra of “we must hate this person, now we must make a point of saying we hate this person.” To take a step back & consider one’s own position, one’s own role, in this churn of horror. And the reality-hijacking question: what happens when words start to mean the opposite? When we’re supposed to hate people because they supposedly hate? When they don’t, for example.
SAMIRA MEKIBES: Nina, you talk about taking the time to step back & engage in dialogue, but in the case of resistance there are people who don’t have the luxury of this, who live in a constant state of life-threatening danger. Not only from the state but by other means.
NP: There’s often a danger in projecting an image of the oppressed other, for example, the one who doesn’t have time to think: it’s always a question of strategy. And there’s also the sense in which mobilizing this image of the other who must act immediately also undermines the freedom everyone has, even in the most constrained positions. It doesn’t make sense to say that one must act without thinking. Sartre says, when you’re chained to a radiator, when you’re trapped, you’re still free to relate to your situation – of oppression, for example, of exploitation. People are not able to organize unless they strategize. Again, there is a misunderstanding of time, like the time of the “other.” It’s not that there aren’t situations in which one must act, or when self-defence comes spontaneously, but if you want to win you have to think carefully, you have to strategize. I wonder about this “other” who is always constrained to act immediately – what role does that play in our own politics.
THOR GARCIA: You talked about thought control or thought-channelling, appropriate or inappropriate thoughts – which forces are orchestrating what’s correct & what’s not correct? Is it technology? Is it a government force? What is it?
DCM: It’s a very good question. I think it’s a combination of different factors. There is something which is fundamentally technological, in terms of what kinds of thoughts & ideas circulate, how they’re received, how they’re transmitted, how they’re simplified. Also, in order to circulate, there’s also something psychological involved in terms of how people respond to certain kinds of communication mediums. Obviously there are also determined political forces concerned with putting their messages out in a very specific way – also in restricting what can be said or can’t be said.
TG: I guess what I’m asking is, do you think that the mass of people are being subjected to psychological operations?
DCM: Absolutely they are, there’s no question whatsoever.
TG: So who’s orchestrating that?
DCM: All kinds of organisations are doing that. It’s difficult for me to imagine that there’s a Central Committee of world thought-control that’s organising everything, but it’s obvious that various organisations are very interested in controlling people’s thoughts for all kinds of reasons. And I think that the question of who’s in alliance with whom & why – if you approach it from a very schematic point of view – there are these global political forces, military forces, intelligence forces, media forces, corporate forces which are all connected on a some level. They have summits, policy agendas, orchestrated spectacles, an image is propagated as to how one should be today, & people respond to that in different ways. The media is quite controlled in every country, including western countries, in terms of what they say or don’t say, stories that they cover. It would be preposterous to think that somehow we don’t live in that kind of world.
TG: I was just trying to draw the connection with something Nina spoke about, the micro-police officer, obviously they can be independent agents who have somehow gotten the message through the technology or the culture, where they feel empowered to strike out & do cop work. How that occurs is fascinating.
DCM: I think it is a really interesting question, because individually these people are not necessarily powerful in themselves & their relation to the world in which they inhabit is to some extent actually, from an individual point of view, a power of weakness operates as a power of collective weakness. It’s something to do also with a kind of over-production of intellectuals, an overproduction of discourse, with a limited quantity of attention & recognition, & a dialectics of recognition that plays into this mimetic spiral where the qualitative is flattened out in the service of creating these messages that acquire a viral force.
TG: It’s hopeless, isn’t it? It’s not going to change.
DCM: I don’t personally feel that I have too much ability to affect how things happen on that level. Because you’re talking about millions & millions of man-hours devoted to producing propaganda messages & disseminating them & reinforcing them, through all the apparatuses of the modern state. But on the other hand, things can also change quickly & I think the way in which a certain form of power operates based on the other believing it, not necessarily you, because I think fewer & fewer people actually believe. You understand you’re supposed to believe it, but I don’t know if people really believe it. There comes a point at which people say, “Why are we nodding along to this stuff?” And then you start to see a preference cascade, & that’s potentially quite a revolutionary situation.
LA: I wanted to come back to something there, Thor, because lurking in the background of your questions is a widely felt need to identify the who, the where, the how & so forth. Earlier today, I don’t know if you were here, Dina Pokrajac was giving a talk on subversive cinema & she cited Kittler’s definition of totalitarianism as the correspondence of broadcast to opinion. The seduction is to believe that opinion means a particular content. McLuhan made a comment once, that the advent of the mass media created public opinion. There’s a tendency to think about this in general discourse as media creating opinion in terms of what you prefer & what you don’t prefer. But that’s not what McLuhan meant. He meant that mass media invents opinion, the genre of opinion, the mode of having opinions, irrespective of what they are. And in this sense we can talk about a system – not as some kind of conspiracy of vested interests – but as the logic of there being vested interests. That’s what the system is. And this operation is in many respects ambivalent, which is what makes it so durable & so capable of not only reconciling its own internal contradictions but absorbing those that are introduced into it through acts of resistance & experiment, for example. This can be linked back to something Nina said earlier about the polis: there is, in many respects, still this pervasive belief that a polis, in some abstract sense, prevails in the world as a social organisation, where there are individual subjectivities that contribute to or determine the discourse, as opposed to all the virtual public entities & troll farms & meme factories & pseudo-grassroots organisations fronting for Cambridge Analytica or Lynton Crosby’s PR agency. You know this very well. But that illusion of the polis – where we still have a politics in terms of a discourse determining representation, which is what politics comes down to – & the belief that this is an aggregation of our collective beliefs, is itself the ghost in the proverbial machine, the fetish of the political itself as some kind of autonomous agency.
NP: If we take the McLuhan claim that the medium is the message, we could look at people’s behaviour online – especially in the extreme cases – as symptomatic of the medium itself, that they’re over-conforming & performing the possibilities of the medium itself. There’s always been a battle between doxa or opinion & wisdom or philosophy that is constitutive of how we interact & how we think. I often wonder about the relationship between the folk idiom – the kind of wisdom that’s passed down in the form of proverbs, for example, “too many cooks spoil the broth,” which have been vertically conveyed within families, communities – & compare that to the thought-terminating clichés of the internet, the slogans everyone is expected to repeat. The question of belief, as Daniel says, is not really the issue, it’s the repetition, it’s the mimetic copying, the proliferation of the same statement as a form of reinforcement, without the face-to-face, without things like tone & gesture, without things like how we might speak ironically, amusingly, seriously, playfully, naughtily or mischievously. In this text-based medium you have the invention of emojis to capture a range of emotions but of course it’s completely reductive – there’s no sense in which that will ever compensate for the presence of another. And this is the problem of the invention of writing as such. There’s an argument by Walter Ong that the Greeks had to invent tragedy in order to deal with the cultural schizophrenia induced by writing, because the moment the have a situation in which people hear voices without seeing or hearing the other person, in the form of writing, you create an absolute split. Schizophrenia literally means “heart-broken,” your heart & mind are split apart because there is no longer a direct relation between speaking, words & presence. Derrida talks about this in relation to writing as a form of dissemination. In a way the internet is just an iteration of the original problem, but it has all sorts of dramatic effects. It’s a massive guinea-pig type experiment on billions of people, whose effects are not clear, & even the masters of the internet are very unsure of what’s really going on with the relationship between states & online propaganda. You don’t need to get people to believe the things they’re saying in order to create a state of confusion. You can create confusion very quickly in one person in terms of cognitive dissonance, just by saying something you don’t necessarily think is right but you say it anyway. That doesn’t need to be some massive, top-down manipulation – manipulation is just the manipulation of desire, of eros. When we talk about the history of magic, magic is simply the manipulation of desire. If you create confusion you don’t need people to believe what they’re saying, they’re just confused, & then they won’t act or think clearly about anything.
DCM: There’s an example from Chinese history, in which the chancellor Zhao Gong, plotting a coup against the Emperor, first instigated a loyalty test among the high court officials, which is related by the idiom “point to a deer & call it a horse.” One day Zhao rode into court on a deer & the Emperor said, “Why are you riding a deer?” And Zhoa said, “I’m not riding a deer, I’m riding a horse, what do you think my fellow ministers?” Everyone who said it was a deer, he had executed, & with the remaining loyalists he executed his coup. That model of power – which is based on a constitutive derangement, in which you want people to lie & people signal their loyalty by lying in the way the state wants them to – opposes the Confucian model, which is the rectification of names, in which, if the names are not correct, you’re unable to do anything because you don’t have a grip on reality & whatever action you perform is radically uncertain as to its effects. You can see that there’s this inevitable conflict between these two models of politics, though on a deeper level it’s really a metaphysical question. What’s interesting to consider is that, once the names are not correct, things spin out of control & you don’t really need someone like Zhao anymore – people are just signalling loyalty to a centre of power that no longer even exists. And I think that’s almost where we are – a mass confusion which is almost global in its reach – a system of power in which power itself doesn’t even know why it’s in power or what it’s doing there, but it nonetheless continues to replicate itself, like a virus.
NP: There’s also a further problem, which is that if you constantly evoke the system as an explanation, it’s also strangely limiting, as far as whose terms we accept as an explanatory model. Of course there are tendencies, there are systems, there are processes, which we could discuss in terms of transhumanism, posthumanism, but does that mean we don’t have a definition of the human anymore? If everything is structured, if everything is constructed, then there’s no basis on which we can think about individual action. And this is a constitutive problem in Marxism, where you draw the line between the human & the antihuman or the non-human. Rather than thinking of Capitalism as a process we often reify Capitalism itself & think of it as a thing. Marx says we must avoid thinking of the lump of capital, for example. But it’s not necessarily clear that Marxists then do anything other than, in a sense, reinforce structure & our response to it.
DCM: Not only that, but you can see today that Capitalism is so entangled with state forces that it’s difficult to even call it Capitalism any more, according to the type of model Marx was theorising. It’s something else, something which has a political control that is operating it & is moving it in a way that is closer to Fascism. Unlike in the nineteenth century you now have a system of central banking based on fiat currencies, which means that, for example, the United States Federal Reserve can print as much money as it likes, based on political decisions made by specific people for a specific reason. And this way in which money is operated upon, as a political technology, by the state, is masked by the reification of capitalism as a diversion from the fact that there are actually real institutions, composed of actual people & real political forces, who are making these decisions for very specific reasons.
NP: There has to be a moment of realisation when we acknowledge that all systems, all institutions, are people all the way down. Institutions of course do have a power, but they’re composed of individuals who are making decisions. And there has to be a moment of reasonable reckoning.
LA: I want to dispute the fact that it’s people all the way down, like the turtles. We can talk about money operating without recourse to the idea of the fetish in order to account for its particular agency. Marx isn’t talking only about the way in which, for example, the individual is alienated by modern modes of production, but the way in which the individual is constituted by alienation. And this individual that we’re speaking about is ostensibly programmed by a system that is operating as an agency, as an artificial intelligence in a sense. So I always wonder when we make recourse to the notion of “people” – for the sake of locating responsibility at a given point of action – are we not omitting the fact that people are integral & equivalent elements of that system’s machinery & thereby reifying in “people” the notion of an agency that is somehow exclusive. An exclusively human agency.
NP: There is a very big philosophical discussion about how we define the human. La Mettrie, an early materialist, would talk about the human being as a kind of machine. We can easily think of ourselves as automatable, for example. Capitalism does nothing other than to turn people into things & things into people – corporations as legal individuals – & so you have that confusion & set of conflicts around the very definition of the human & machine, or the human & the posthuman. But I think that if you have any kind of interest in something outside systems, then there has to be some form of – perhaps not agency – but something irreducible to these other things. And again, who benefits by saying that artificial intelligence subsumes everything, we’re all just symptoms? I think we have to be realistic about the extent to which people are automatable & the fact that people are & can be exploited & enslaved – but that’s not all of it, how can it be?
SAMIRA MEKIBES: But when it’s systematic, when alienation is built into the idea of the human?
NP: Sure, but how can it be absolute? You are alienated from something – your own nature, the rest of mankind, your own labour power. Alienation is from something, otherwise you no longer participate in humanity, you’re purely a function or a symptom, or a tool, or a rock, or a machine. What I’m saying is that there is always something left over, residual, & if we say that there isn’t then I think we’re really in trouble. Then we do just give up.
LA: Maybe that residual element is subjectivity. Even in Marx we need to understand that to be alienated is not necessarily a transitive condition, it doesn’t necessarily have an object. It has the same status as being (intransitively): that one is alienated, & that this is how subjectivity comes into being. And that the dream of an emancipation from alienation, which drives the fundamental fantasy of the subject, is the sublime.
DCM: To speak of the totality of the human as a category is also to ignore the possibility of the superhuman, which was an idea that was normal before modern metaphysics became so predominant. The idea of man being suspended – this is what Nietzsche says – between the Übermensch & something that comes before that, as the locus of different kinds of forces which are constantly moving. How does one take some kind of position with respect to that? How do you understand it? Marx has an idea of man as a labouring being, alienated from his labour – his idea of man is this. That seems to me to be a reduction of what man is. We accept to easily a restricted definition of man & even a restricted definition of alienation, since what we are really alienated from isn’t just our labour power, it’s the entire universe. A universe that we have a relationship to which has nothing to do with our labour power & is separated from us by a certain kind of epistemological confusion about what we are actually doing on this planet as individuals or as a species.
LA: How does a hierarchy of being come back into the question of alienation?
DCM: There’s a way in which man with his power machines assumes this egomaniacal point of view on reality, whereby we think we can dominate nature, that we should dominate it, that we should convert it into a means of production, & that it derives its value from the utility we can extract from it. And of course there’s a problem here, because, given that we too are natural beings, we tend to take this relationship into ourselves & become utility functions also, & then man becomes self-cannibalising in terms of how we relate to other forces in nature – as if everything is just a product placed there to be used in a deterministic way.
DUSTIN BREITLING: Nina, I know you have associations with Mark Fisher & I’m deeply interested in the idea of Capitalist realism & the cancellation of the future. As far as I understand, this practice that you’re discussing, about going out – not necessarily into the wilderness, but decoupling, detaching – from everything around us, all this ensemble of objects that are dictating the regime of time: I’m curious if you agree with the idea that we should embrace the notion of cancelling the future? In the sense that the future itself – considering the kinds of climate actions we’re witnessing, with Extinction Rebellion & people on the streets propelled by a sense of emergency – becomes confused with what may be inevitably reactionary tendencies.
NP: I would like to say that Mark is the reason Daniel & I actually met in the first place, more than a decade ago, & we were very close to Mark. But in relation to what you’re saying, I think that what Mark was working on before he died – the question of acid communism – had a lot to do with certain folk traditions. There’s long been a kind of edict that the left cannot talk about the land…
LA: Which is the basis of indigenous resistance, I might add.
NP: Exactly. But there’s this belief that the left cannot talk about place, because those things are “right” discussions – & the moment you start talking about place, the sacred, or ritual, somehow you’ve strayed from the territory. Mark was moving very much against that. He was thinking back to things like the rave in the 90s, & the way in which the land became the focus of a collective, free, open, liberated form of being together that had a specific relation to place – in the UK, for example. But there’s no reason why we can’t think about the specificity of place everywhere, because in a sense the homogeneity of global capitalism tries to say that there is no special place – that everywhere is basically the same, that you can put shopping malls anywhere. My position on that, in terms of where we can think – in Plato’s dialogues you think in particular places – is that dialectically if we say that everywhere is the same then we can think anywhere, but at the same time the specialness of place & the particularity of being together – the acid communism idea – & the heightened relation to an experience, the entheogenic enthusiasm of the dance, the ritual, that is heterogeneous to the homogeneity of the everyday. The misery that Mark always talked about, the conditions of mental health, the very frame of the “mental” where Capitalist realism says there’s no alternative, there is no breakout, that this is an act of depression, inhibition, of a certain kind of virtual prison of the mind. I’m very committed to Mark’s project & there are various people who are working on this idea – & one way of doing that is to think about the sacred in relation to the future. And I agree that whilst I’m talking about pulling back from the emergency of the activist mode – as someone who’s been involved in it – I’m also concerned about thinking differently in relation to the future, which is also a relation to the past, even the prehistoric, that draws upon sacred places – to say that there are continuities of choreography, of dance, of movement, of collective being-together – & not against the future as such, but a less panicked & anxious way of thinking about the political future, or the collective future somehow.
DARYA KULBASHNA: I don’t really understand the motivation behind the process that your thinking is going through right now. Whether your project is individual, whether it is directed at “the masses,” or whether it is aimed at transgression for its own sake? What is the direction of your project, if you see it as a project?
NP: It’s important for me, personally & politically, that people feel as free as they can, to think & to act & to question, otherwise we end up in an extraordinarily homogeneous world in which people just repeat what they’re supposed to say.
DK: So it’s more of a personal statement?
DCM: In terms of what a project might be, I don’t know. On some level, what isn’t a personal statement? What would be such a thing? Personally, if someone asks me what I think, I’ll tell them, there’s not much more than that, to be frank. Though for some reason there are people who don’t want me to do that.
LA: But all of these positions arise from a process. As a project, you’re not simply producing a subjective thought, an opinion – there’s a constellation of significance behind it, it’s not just arbitrary – & you’ve arrived at it through an analysis…
DCM: Nina & I – if I may – are both committed to the idea of the freedom of thought & the freedom to think. And if one considers the history of that idea, it’s quite difficult to have that freedom – that freedom isn’t something that is granted, you have to fight for it, because there are these forces that do attack & people who are committed to doing that. This has been the history of philosophy ever since Socrates, who was persecuted – & executed – for “corrupting youth.” And it’s necessary for anyone attempting to think on this radical level to defend themselves, to practice a certain form of self-defence, because there are always going to be forces committed to preventing that from happening. So it’s ultimately a question for you – for anybody: how committed are you, actually, to thinking for yourself. Because if you truly are committed, then you’re going to have to face at a certain point people who, for reasons of their own, are very committed to stopping you from doing that.
LA: I’m interested in the personality aspect of this, the way in which things are often reduced to a personality politics, as a kind of commodification of the do’s & don’ts. And that makes me want to come back to Darya’s question. There’s the suggestion that this is still an individualist project about individual emancipation. At the beginning of your talk you spoke about consciousness – a becoming-conscious with regards to the world as it is given. When we look at Marx, there’s the question of a bringing-to-consciousness of those who are immersed in an ideological system of which they’re unaware, & this bringing-to-consciousness – the struggle of class consciousness – may evolve into a revolutionary consciousness or a consciousness of action. So I’m wondering, can we separate this question of an individual emancipation, of individual responsibility, from a collective project – if pursuit of, or defence of, free thought is more than simply a statement of one’s positions as an individual? Is the pursuit of philosophy not ultimately a collective project?
DCM: Considering the individual is already always in some kind of collectivity – & people will react to the expression of ideas in one way or another, ideas are shared or not – & from that point of view, I don’t know that there needs to be more. The idea of a universal liberation or emancipation is quite a dangerous one. To set oneself up as if bringing emancipation to the masses – I don’t know how you emancipate the masses, actually – I think that every individual has to make decisions for themselves. And if you’re trying to free people en masse, do they stay as a mass once they’ve been freed? Do they become your mass – which is to say, your army? What in fact have you actually achieved? When you look at the history of Marxist revolutions you do encounter this kind of contradiction. Ultimately there is a reality, whereby one has to address an individual person one-to-one, at one time, even if they’re the person who’s just reading your book at that moment. You can’t really address the “masses” as “individuals” without thereby de-individualising them. This is a problem if you think that ultimately it is a question of an individual’s own conscience. Which I think it is. I don’t believe you can raise the consciousness of a people en masse, you have to have individuals who are committed to certain kinds of values, or virtues, & if others feel they share those same things then you can arrive at a more spontaneous collectivity that doesn’t require a dictator addressing them as a mass. Personally I feel quite antagonistic to this kind of mass politics, especially to any form of politics that finds it necessary to stage itself on that basis. If you look at what that has resulted in, you have a party & then you have a mass, & the party leads the mass, & I don’t see that as any kind of emancipation at all.
NP: Marx does have a defence of the social individual against the non-individual that Capitalism generates. “We don’t yet know,” says Marx in The German Ideology, “what it is to be an individual.” People are channelled into particular roles, they’re alienated from their being in all these particular ways – not just their labour, whereas human beings are capable of polyvalence, of performing or enacting all sorts of roles that they are usually prohibited from performing or enacting. We’re multiple beings, all of us, who don’t yet know what it means in fact to be an individual. This fake individuality that we’re sold – in terms of taste, for example: “oh I like this, you like that” – is no kind of individualism at all. That’s just a preference within a limited frame: a set of pre-existing tropes & types that one slots oneself into in the hope of generating a character. And yet we live in an era or total identity. The lockdown on identity – the idea that one must hold a passport on who or what one is – is a police logic. Fichte talks about this: the pure coincidence of oneself with oneself – in terms of who you say you are – leaves no room for actual individuality of any kind. Actual individuality is much more flexible, much more ambiguous & open, & it’s that openness of the individual – to be oneself – that I’m most interested in. Insofar as it is possible to escape the lockdown of identity.