A Is for Adraknones

I’m going to wager that you know someone who has read more science fiction and/or fantasy novels than I have. In fact, you might be that person. I don’t live in the world of sf/fantasy; however, I’ve been vacationing there off and on for the past several years. I know a little bit about it, but no, not as much as you or your know-it-all friend.

My attraction to sf/fantasy is the creations of other worlds. This is not surprising. I’ll be up front in saying that the world I want to live in is not this one. I also recognize that there’s a fair amount of investment in creating a world, which is why a lot of sf/fantasy stories are published in series or at least as mammoth tomes. If you’re going to invent a new world, you may as well get a number of books out of it, or at least many pages. There’s also a certain commitment that I as a reader must make in order to fully engage with this.

I’m drawn to these alternate worlds generally because I would prefer to live in those worlds. For example, I would absolutely live in the magical world of Harry Potter if I had the choice. Even with Death Eaters and dragons, I’d still choose this if it also meant I could ride a broom and perform spells and hexes. Some literary worlds I’m a little more ambivalent about hypothetically inhabiting, such as Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books and Bas-Lag in the trilogy by China Mieville. Neither place is a walk in the park.


Recently I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Unlike my previous examples, it falls under the speculative fiction genre rather than the fantasy. It tips the scales at a hefty 890 pages, with another 45 pages dedicated to a glossary and three mathematical appendices. My hardcover copy could be used to bludgeon an opponent’s skull before polycosmology could erupt from anybody’s lips. The first third of the book is dedicated to describing the world that the protagonist Fraa Erasmus inhabits and its system of philosophical monasteries called concents. Arbre is a world similar to ours but with a few subtle differences. Stephenson creates new terminology to describe analogous occurrences. Jeejahs, fraas, suurs, Deolaters, and the Hylaean Theoric World: they each have corresponding realities in the world we live in, and some of their meanings can be deduced from comparable etymology.

There’s a criticism to be made about inventing new terms for things that an author could conceivably describe in the language in which the book is being written. It’s a lot of new words for a reader to pick up. The glossary is 20 pages long. It’s not every reader who will want to attempt such an endeavor. Some of my science fiction fan friends couldn’t tolerate the book because of this. I might not have attempted it if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed two of Stephenson’s novels already, including Cryptonomicon which at nearly 1200 pages is the longest novel I have ever read. As is turns out though, I seem to have a very long attention span for novels. Anticipating Anathem‘s bounty of new terms, I actually read the glossary first. If an author is going to go through the trouble of creating a new world, I want to at least understand it.

Let’s talk about the creation of terms first. Language literally defines the practices and values of a given civilization. If you were going to create a new world, why wouldn’t the words be different? In the practice of writing speculative fiction, you also have to think about the consistency of terminology within the given system. Arbre didn’t have Pythagoras; therefore the length of a hypotenuse isn’t determined with the Pythagorean Theorum but with the Adraknonic Theorum, named after ancient Arbran theorist Adrakhones. Arbre also has two language groups— Orth, reserved solely for monastic living, and various vernacular languages across the world, Fluccish being the one in use where most of the book takes place. Stephenson is no dummy; he makes an introductory disclaimer that while the book is translated from Arbran languages, original terminology is kept unless the difference between the Arbran object and our counterpart is so small that to use an Arbran term would be unnecessarily complicated. He cites the carrot as an example of something whose Arbran counterpart is so similar that he (the translator) may as well just call them carrots to make it easier on the reader. He also begins the book with a brief timeline of the approximately 7000 years of Arbran ontological history..

In addition to a long attention span for novels I also seem to have an ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to reading books about different worlds than my own. Once, after having read a few Harry Potter books in a row, I found myself requiring a pen that was across the room. Without pausing for thought, I said, “Accio pen!” Yes, aloud. It took me half a second to realize that the pen wasn’t going to fly across the room into my hand.

Similarly, Anathem‘s mathic system— that is to say, the social division on Arbre that places intellectuals and philosophers inside networks of monastic seclusion— infused my brain with its terms and features. I wondered if I would have been in the Edharian group or the New Circle, or if I would have been one of the Saeculars whom for whatever reason had never been properly assessed and collected as a child by the monastic orders. I even went through my romantic history and mentally categorized my relationships into Tivian liaisons and Etrevenean ones. Some of the argumentative concepts also seemed useful, and I nearly forgot that I couldn’t drop those terms in regular conversations. The Rake is Arbran shorthand for the idea that wishing something is true doesn’t make it more likely to be true, and stems from an incident when an ancient philosopher used a garden implement to brush away zealots. The Steelyard is a similar mental tool which states that when faced with two hypotheses to choose the simpler one, based on an ancient metaphor involving a scale.

I wonder if it’s just an aspect of these worlds that I’m drawn to, in the same way that Ren Faire folks obsess over only a certain spectrum of Renaissance era living. I like the part of Harry Potter that exists in Hogwarts, and I like the concents in Anathem. What does this say about me— that my true desire is to live in a cult? I hope not. No, I think what it says is that if I could, I would choose a life outside of capitalism. The concents as they are described in the beginning of the book seem like idyllic intentional communities where contemplation is favored over consumer culture. At first, it seems like a livable trade-off— sure there are rules about what documents you’re allowed to read and what technologies you can have access to, but on the other hand once you come of age your time is for the most part your own. Reading, writing, growing and preparing food, pursuing crafts or martial arts that interest you, and most importantly consulting with your peers— you can make a life of this.

I could make a life of this.

However, as with many things in life and in fiction, illusions fall away. The concents are centers of intellectual separatism which manage to successfully resist the comparably frenetic pace of cultural and technological change outside their fortified gates, but they are also themselves political entities with power and weaknesses known only to secret organizations within their walls. They maintain their perceived neutrality and separation only insofar as the outside governments decide to grant it to them, a situation not that different than an intentional community or cult on our planet that is left alone by military forces until such time that its inhabitants are deemed too dangerous or too useful.

As a result, I’m back on this planet, at least until I read another science fiction book.

Outsider Anarchism

a review of METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

Five award-winning science fiction writers got together, wrote a shared-world fiction anthology that explores explicitly anarchist solutions to the world’s problems, and then got the cast of Battlestar Galactica to read them as an audiobook. And the anarchists, by and large, took no notice.

METAtropolis–released as an audiobook in 2008 and finally reaching trade paperback printing only this year in 2010–is a fascinating piece of outsider anarchist fiction. The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or anarchistnews.org; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum. They’re completely unfettered by the assumptions that so many of us carry with us at all times.

a review of METAtropolis, edited by John Scalzi

Five award-winning science fiction writers got together, wrote a shared-world fiction anthology that explores explicitly anarchist solutions to the world’s problems, and then got the cast of Battlestar Galactica to read them as an audiobook. And the anarchists, by and large, took no notice.

METAtropolis–released as an audiobook in 2008 and finally reaching trade paperback printing only this year in 2010–is a fascinating piece of outsider anarchist fiction. The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or anarchistnews.org; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum. They’re completely unfettered by the assumptions that so many of us carry with us at all times.



This isn’t to say that they’ve created utopias, or that the societies presented in METAtropolis deserve to be copied and pasted into a “traditional” anarchist context, only that these outsider pieces are useful–in showing us that there are many roads to anarchy–and fascinating.

The basic premise of the anthology is to explore–or perhaps explode–the concept of cities after the collapse of most of the tenants of western civilization, but not after an apocalypse. After an economic and governmental collapse.

The first piece is perhaps the most obvious example of the contradictions and the sordid beauty of a naive look at anarchism: Tyger Tyger by Jay Lake describes eco-anarchists who live in the forests of Cascadia. They are technology workers, genetic engineers who’s main cultural export is open-source genetic code. They’ve got a slight bit of military hierarchy and they’ve got torture chambers for their political enemies. Their borders are closed and fiercely controlled. Not the sort of piece that a classical anarchist would write.

Elizabeth Bear describes a scavenger society built on reputation economics, a new-world-in-the-shell-of-the-old culture of recyclers and communists who’ve never read any Marx. But she also gets at the heart of what is being offered in the anthology: no author is trying to blueprint a utopia. One character in Bear’s story points out: “It’s not a utopia. It’s just maybe something that sucks a little less.”

Tobias S. Buckell describes an arguably horizontal nomadic structure that travels the country, happily utilizing a diversity of tactics from protest to bombings to shut down police infrastructure and build vertical farms and other monuments to sustainability wherever they go. They ride bikes and forcibly dismantle people’s cars, and are a sort of fanatical–yet sympathetic–cult of “zero footprinters.”

John Scalzi describes a more traditional, hierarchical city but sympathizes heavily with the barbarians at its gates, and Karl Schroeder describes an augmented reality city on top of a city with its own post-scarcity economic structure.

I’m not just fascinated by the cultures that these stories present, I’m fascinated by their authors’ point of entry. I would suggest that technology culture in the 21st century is leaning more and more towards anarchist approaches. Centralization is being outed as the demon it is: centralization and homogeny are understood as the bane of a healthy online network, and many are beginning to realize that the same is true of offline networks. A sort of neo-tribalism is on the rise, as is simply understanding that people and cultures are more fascinating when viewed as webs, as horizontal networks, than as rigidly controlled and highly-formalized structures.

What’s more, intellectual property is increasingly out of vogue. A sort of anarcho-futurist mentality is on the rise: that we should borrow and steal freely from each other’s ideas, that copyright laws are an imposition on our aesthetic and creative freedom, that they stand in the way of moving our culture forward–or outward, or in whatever direction it feels like moving. Some are, I would argue, even beginning to understand that it is not that we steal ideas from one another, but that copyright and intellectual property actually represent theft from the public, enclosure of what by nature ought to be the commons. Knowledge knows no scarcity and there is no reason to charge for its dissemination.

Slowly, this critique of intellectual property is filtering out into meatspace, and now in the 21st century many geeks are coming to their own understandings of what Proudhon so famously stated in the 19th: property is theft.

Radicals would be fools to ignore this sudden appearance of fellow-travelers.

There is plenty to be critical about in METAtropolis, to be certain. I know many people who will reject the entire thing whole-hog because it proposes (or at least describes) genetically engineering pigs to better feed a “green” city. Its critique of technology is quite specialized, its critique of capital is occasionally bizarre, and its portrayal of protests is actually sort of cute in its naivety. But still, these authors are intelligent people and their proposals merit consideration at the very least.

But I’m not as concerned with how this might influence the radical crowd as I am excited about how this might influence a broader audience. Fiction is a powerful medium for the dissemination of radical thought, and here it has been utilized quite effectively: the line between utopia and dystopia are so blurred that it is almost impossible to take ideas from the book as prescriptive, and anarchism is presented as a fairly non-ideological movement or idea. There are no black flags, but there is squatting, permaculture, and direct action. And thank heavens, there’s no appealing to the state. A mainstream book that talks about solutions to political problems without a hint of reformism: I can handle that.

The Ibn ‘Arabi effect

Dear T,

They left as night let its curtains down in folds. – Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

I am neither an authority on, nor a partisan of, Camatte’s worldview and am thus unable to confidently recommend to you one of his works above the others. In my life, I have found that I am unable to perform either the role of teacher or student and so habitually avoid all approximates of such relations. Equally, as I do not know what questions you wish to ask in your readings of these, or any other works, I cannot even make a guess as to how to best inform your curiosity.

Instead, and I admit this is quite unlooked for, I am able to discuss other more immediate but still related matters. The question I wish to raise with you is the nature of the breaking away of individuals from the elective relations which, to a great extent, have formed their characters. The reason I have discussed Camatte here, and elsewhere, is that he fits this model very well, he is the most readily recognisable and accessible embodiment of the tendency to depart from our milieu on a personal voyage. In fact, I am almost tempted to term this tendency, ‘the Camatte effect’ but it seems a little unfair to utilise the name of someone still living for such purposes… for want of a more apt term, I have therefore settled on the almost arbitrary, ‘The Ibn ‘Arabi effect’ as he is an exemplary figure who voyaged spiritually and then was unable to return home – he is a person who found himself in a different place.

Dear T,

They left as night let its curtains down in folds. – Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

I am neither an authority on, nor a partisan of, Camatte’s worldview and am thus unable to confidently recommend to you one of his works above the others. In my life, I have found that I am unable to perform either the role of teacher or student and so habitually avoid all approximates of such relations. Equally, as I do not know what questions you wish to ask in your readings of these, or any other works, I cannot even make a guess as to how to best inform your curiosity.

Instead, and I admit this is quite unlooked for, I am able to discuss other more immediate but still related matters. The question I wish to raise with you is the nature of the breaking away of individuals from the elective relations which, to a great extent, have formed their characters. The reason I have discussed Camatte here, and elsewhere, is that he fits this model very well, he is the most readily recognisable and accessible embodiment of the tendency to depart from our milieu on a personal voyage. In fact, I am almost tempted to term this tendency, ‘the Camatte effect’ but it seems a little unfair to utilise the name of someone still living for such purposes… for want of a more apt term, I have therefore settled on the almost arbitrary, ‘The Ibn ‘Arabi effect’ as he is an exemplary figure who voyaged spiritually and then was unable to return home – he is a person who found himself in a different place.

Up to this juncture, those who have broken from their milieu, to follow their own path, have tended to disappear from its records… how many radicals have joined and then departed from the organisations that they thought best expressed their interest? The loss of these individuals is an occurrence that is little discussed – perhaps we are more tempted to contemplate how the organisations themselves operate homeostatically and always somehow maintain the same numbers even though these numbers are constituted by a constantly replenished membership of individuals. The great problem of this breaking away of individuals is not the schism itself so much as the constant rate of loss of knowledge that these individuals have gained in their intellectual journeying – this has developed to such a level that it functions as a critique of the specifics of membership itself. And the result for the organisations concerned has been catastrophic in that they are perpetually bound to a fallback set of principles only new recruits are capable of adhering to. The endless circulation of membership and the hanging on of a grizzled old guard induces organisational inflexibility. By contrast, we know by experience that where there is a constant long term relation, there is always, tinkering and internal modification of the terms of that relation.

I mentioned above, this juncture because for the first time those who have set off on their own journeys from the milieu are being registered as a positive phenomenon by those who do not wish to see them disappear. The problem has been that those who broke from organisations had no structures to ensure the continuity of their ideas… and so the milieu has been consistently losing the insights (and occasional theoretical breakthroughs) which were not aligned to any particular group or party. For the first time, the opinions of those who break away from the milieu’s organisations are being sought out and also organised in order that they cannot be so easily lost again. But why should I presume that those who break from the party are its most intelligent elements?

My understanding of the movement of human consciousness is that it is based firstly in a tendency to band together and secondly, in contradiction, in a tendency to divergence (hence, The Ibn ‘Arabi effect). We might say that Intelligence is thus always defined in terms of divergence from what is established whereas interest is expressed in terms of a reverted to solidarity. From this understanding, it is a small step to perceive ‘organisations’ as structures whose unrecognised function is, in reality, to produce embodiments of the Ibn Arabi effect, that is, they are devices for the production of dissent and breaking away.

I belong to a speculative (i.e. non-existent) group called Forward Unit, the purpose of this group is to engage those individual bearers of fragments of consciousness who have undertaken journeys away from the milieu orthodoxies which have formed them. The purpose of this engagement is to feed their knowledge back into the milieu so that such voyages have their social content returned to them.

Camatte’s break with marxism is remarkable for two reasons: a. that he did not fall silent (which is most significant for the work of [Forward Unit as the not falling silent of those who are intellectually dissatisfied with the given forms of pro-communism is the highest of its priorities); b. his break produced a number of concrete theoretical problems (i.e. the total subsumption of the proletariat/the community of capital; the rejection of organisations and politics). Specifically, in my opinion, Camatte’s greatest contribution is found in an almost nondescript sentence in The Wandering of Humanity in which he states, (I paraphrase), communism is the return of all of human intelligence in non-traumatised form.

In other words, the invariant commitment of communism to humanity is not to be found in the adherence to a particular ‘communist’ theory (as this produces numerous unintended political, ethical and psychological side-effects, not the least of which is a destructive compulsion to heresy) but rather it is the structural and practical facilitation of other people’s intelligence within a safe and supportive environment. For myself, Camatte’s account (which he opposes to Marx’s later celebration of the development of the forces of production) was something of a revelation, as I have always found the certainty of pro-revolutionary groups embarrassing and counterproductive (i.e. the very forms they operate within are bound to produce violent and unhelpful disagreement both internally and externally)…. and the idea that communism is the realisation in the form of social relations of a set of principles is equally abhorrent as it denies the basic subjective content of all other human forms, past and present, that have appeared in the world.

What then is the status of the findings of those who break from the milieu? It seems to me that the Ibn ‘Arabi effect is some sort of embodied expression of the external world’s corrective of internal subjective formations and the sticking points of consciousness that belong to them (i.e. overvalued ideas, overvalued relations, overvalued objects, overvalued histories). Those who take an individualist turn in their activities renew the appropriate form of subjective thought within the milieu which habitually seeks an objectivist perspective despite its minority status. The individualist turn, as it expresses the generality’s corrective of small group pretensions, asks, ‘what is it of that which defines you, are you now prepared to give up?’

Up to this point in time, the pro-communist milieu has not had to actively engage with the Ibn Arabi effect, the fresh and eager enthusiasm of new recruits has simply supplanted the radical non-commitment of those departing. But now, it is possible for those have become disillusioned with the milieu to examine what it is that has caused them to undertake their voyage away from it without their having to renounce the entirety of the problems of social transformation which they previously were so engaged with.

If communism is not the realisation of a set of principles then perhaps it is a set of recuperative practices which attempt to field and process other people’s tendency to the Ibn ‘Arabi effect… this assertion is based, as I remarked above, on the assumption that disagreement (or, the filling in of not occupied space) is fundamental to the human species and that the therapeutic relating of the components of disagreement are of greater liberatory value than the content of the disagreement itself (or put another way, there is a commensurability between the freeing up of the different levels of discourses and the maximisation of those who have access to them.)

What happens when, through the efforts of Forward Unit, the findings of those who have voyaged away from it are fed back into the milieu? The first implication, I think, will be a reduction in the over-influence of clichés in young masculinity (that cycle of initial Hotspur militancy and denunciation followed by rapid decline into indifference); the event of radical divergence will also become less traumatising (i.e. it will not be so understood as alien or as a ‘betrayal’) and will be more generally welcomed as contributive. There is also the question of commissioning those who have not yet deserted the ranks to undertake their independent divergences… Overall, after long contemplation of Camatte’s (not-complete) marginalisation within the pro-revolutionary milieu, it seems that the preferable option (if we are to include such vital intelligences within our schemes) is to construct organisations that are actively and positively productive of divergences in place of those which have previously valued conformity. Divergent ideas and themes must be re-circulated within the milieu to be always up for their reconsideration in a new light – this work of reconsideration is the very core of a living social relationship.

I view the class struggle in its most totalised form to be more productive of, rather than receptive to, conscious intervention in its great churnings. No subjective consciousness has the capacity to successfully divert the flow of the struggle at that level. The process by which ideas are circulated on the largest scale is, under stable conditions, tied to capital expenditure on communications machinery (although even this is no guarantee of success of particular ideas). But during unstable periods, the means by which a new idea becomes popular is a mystery. Nobody could anticipate the linking of Camatte with Ibn ‘Arabi for example. The territory of communist intervention therefore is extremely narrow and I have come to see it in terms of a form of pastoral care undertaken at a very small scale. Camatte was the first marxist (since Marx perhaps) to reintroduce the individual’s scale in the question of opposition to capitalism… it is the individual who most resists quantification, abstraction and his interchangeability as a unit of the economy. More precisely, it is the role of communists to re-present to the most militant anti-capitalist formations of the moment, the centrality of the individual.

The purpose of communist activity after Camatte is to increase the conscious proportion in decisionmaking process at all levels and to thereby diminish the influence of this hostile environment. And where there occurs within the milieu an identification with the forces of production and the ideology of progress, where it is demanded that some individuals will necessarily be destroyed to achieve the realisation of some greater process – the communist must step in, even where he has no power to effect the outcome and argue, ‘’not this individual and not this process.’

I also think a new theory of the proletariat becomes possible at this juncture, a theory which accepts Camatte’s insight into domestication but does not consider it as the end of the matter. Domestication, or real domination, is productive of further contestations but on a different terrain, we still find evidence of objective (i.e. non-conscious) class struggle. However, the struggle is now occurring, as a friend has put it, beyond politics and at the level of affectivity… that is at the level of the proletariat’s recent acute sensitisation to its environment, at the level of its incapacities, of its multiplying illnesses, of its dependency, its lack of agency and non-productivity, its deskilling, its flight from responsibility and politics.

It seems that capitalism cannot survive without the continual reproletarianisation of the world’s population, and yet within vast numbers of humanity this process has induced a terrible enervation and incapacity for productive work… Beginning from Camatte’s perception of a condition of total domination we see that if communism cannot now occur in the form of a supercession of and through capitalist production then it may begin materially as a collapsing away from the productive relation altogether.

If in the past the mighty workers movement could not subdue capital and bend productive forces to its will then the proletariat’s current high maintenance costs and its increasing uselessness may indicate a separation of humanity from its domination by dead labour – we see here how the Ibn ‘Arabi effect works out on a society wide scale – the proletariat is diverging from its productive role and is passing into a condition of errancy, or listless wandering.

The therapeutic attempt to realise all this unarticulated alienated drift as a radical and conscious incompatibility with capitalist forms and then link it to a project of total social transformation is central now to pro-communism’s historical role – although at first, before this therapeutic intervention may occur, it is likely that even more pain, loss and anguish (or ‘austerity’) must be passed through.

You asked for a reading recommendation and instead I have provided you with a reading of my own. Did you expect anything else?

Aimiably,

frére dupont

Hey Italo, congratulations on your rediscovering the élan of molluscs!

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

’In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer forces of production but forces of destruction (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. (…) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the changing of men on a mass scale is, necessary, a change which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it, can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew.’
The German Ideology

Science fiction and pro-revolutionary literature share the same highest of high priorities, namely the separating out of moments of freedom from the reproduction of existing constrained relationships. Both discourses are most concerned with the image of an overflowing of activity which cannot be mapped back onto the co-ordinates of already established behaviour but which, on the contrary, defines itself on its own terms and may thus be presented as exceptional.

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

’In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer forces of production but forces of destruction (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. (…) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the changing of men on a mass scale is, necessary, a change which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it, can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew.’
The German Ideology

Science fiction and pro-revolutionary literature share the same highest of high priorities, namely the separating out of moments of freedom from the reproduction of existing constrained relationships. Both discourses are most concerned with the image of an overflowing of activity which cannot be mapped back onto the co-ordinates of already established behaviour but which, on the contrary, defines itself on its own terms and may thus be presented as exceptional.



Freedom is always novel and freedom always steps out of all established registers in its wilful creation of a new register. What is free is thus understood as traces of consciousness commingling with fragments of activity within a unified project; freedom is always to be evaluated on the terms it generates itself out of the mixing together of its constituent parts.

’The shock of freedom works miracles. Nothing can resist it, neither mental illness, remorse, guilt, the feeling of powerlessness, nor the brutalisation created by the environment of power. When a waterpipe burst in Pavlov’s laboratory, not one of the dogs that survived the flood retained the slightest trace of his long conditioning. Could the tidal wave of great social upheavals have less effect on men than a burst waterpipe on dogs?’
Vaniegem

But, once it has lost it glimmer, the image of freedom becomes that of caprice in relation to fate. As time lapses, the faded image of what it means to be free is transformed into the defining constraint on reproduced activity. Oppression is never more than freedom plus time.

Somewhere within that most esteemed collection of science fiction stories Cosmicomics Italo Calvino considers the freeing of shellfish from their submarine greyness. He notes that their achievement of colour is not complemented by their developing sight so that they might somehow gain benefit from their achievement. He represents this ‘just so’, the why it had to be, as a delicate process of accidental developments, of distribution of faculties, of the interplay of internalities and externalities, of constraints and the overcoming of constraints, of collapsing complexities and destabilised simplicities, of enticements and dead ends, of slow builds and sudden rushes.

In particular, Calvino presents the relationship of experimental engagements of the self (wherever this may be located on the circuit of material forces) within the context of a blank world as a series of subjectively achieved breakthroughs. He records how the evolution of sight does accompany the embodiment of visuality in the world but he also considers how the capacity to gaze is allocated to a different organisation’s line of descent than the developmental line of what is to be gazed upon – and yet, we discover, that far from having separate lineages the looking and the looked upon are necessarily integral to each other even if they do not inherit the same genetic patterning.

The object of my study here is Calvino’s displacement of the concept of work-activity from what is ordinarily understood as such (as encapsulated in the Theses on Feuerbach) to the works and activities of that which we have previously thought performs neither.

During those long moments of equilibrium in the world, when nothing much is happening, and everything slides gradually without a fanfare, my attention slides too and away from the agitations of those whose function it is to make a difference. Slipping further, my preparedness is then disconnected from the horizon where I had just now been looking for punctuating, emergent events, for extinctual crises and upfolding cataclysms, for any and all those eruptions which are going to shake new terms from out of the sky and down upon us. Quite unexpectedly, I pass into a state where I am neither looking for the signs nor listening for the prophets of the signs. And during such times I find myself engaged with, as if for the first time, all in the world that does not, and will not ever, change.

Because nothing is happening, my attention is drawn rather to the work, which is not a work at all, of that which is acted upon – to the stoney ground. That is to say, my attention is attracted to the passive role in the relation of the revolutionisers to the revolutionised.

My interest begins to attach itself to the receptor unit in communication, to the cloud of reactions which does not appear of its volition but is perhaps only ever defined by the actions of external forces. This cloud is divisible into two distinct modes:

A. affectiveness – by passivity, by reaction, susceptibility, suggestibility, responsiveness, pliability, permeability, mutability;

B. impermeability – by neutrality, by resistance, by inertia.

My interest in nothing doing, is primarily located in that substrate through which active principles either percolate down or flow across. Why is it that so much of the world does nothing but is content to either be changed from the outside, or even remain as it is? To focus the question more sharply, why is it that the communism as proposed by communisers is vulgar, forced, artificial whilst that which appears spontaneously within the communised is subtle, natural, well-proportioned? Why do we naturally prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it?

My interest then, is directed towards the work of receptor units, the passive bodies, the inert materials, the mute objects, the acted upon, in-themselves, subjects.

’I’m talking about sight, the eyes; only I had failed to foresee one thing: the eyes that finally opened to see us didn’t belong to us but to others. Shapeless colourless beings, sacks of guts stuck together carelessly, peopled the world around us, without giving the slightest thought to what they should make of themselves, to how to express themselves and identify themselves in a stable, complete form, such as to enrich the visual possibilities of whoever saw them. They came and went, sank awhile, then emerged, in that space between air and water and rock, wandering about absently; and we in the meanwhile, she and I and all those intent on squeezing out a form of ourselves, were there slaving away at our dark task. Thanks to us, that badly defined space became a visual field; and who reaped the benefit? These intruders, ho had never before given a thought to the possibility of eyesight (ugly as they were, they wouldn’t have gained a thing by seeing one another), these creatures who had always turned a deaf ear to the vocation of form. While we were bent over, doing the hardest part of the job, that is creating something to be seen, they were quietly taking on the easiest part: adapting their lazy embryonic receptive organs to what there was to receive: our images.’
The Spiral (from The Complete Cosmicomics)

The narrator, an unidentified mollusc, is describing how he has evolved a beautifully coloured and perfectly proportioned spiral shell. It is strange is it not, he observes, how his shell, this calcareous exoskeleton secreted from ectodermic cells within that part of his anatomy called the mantle, and supposedly developed as a mode of defence against predation, should also realise itself in terms of a visually pleasing logarithmic spiral growth, and an equally aesthetic complementary set of colours when he and his kind do not possess sight.

The narrator, and his kind, are visual objects and yet cannot see themselves. He goes on to explain, first in terms of love, and then in terms of the external evolution of sight, the work, his work, of passivity; he describes how the loved draws forward the lover, how the image catalyses the development of the eye.

The mollusc’s account of evolution here shifts its focus from the ‘active’ work of genes and instead emphasises the passive role of environment – sight is drawn out of bodies by the establishment of a visual field. Living beings develop the capacity to respond to visual stimuli, and this responsiveness enhances their existence, because there are things in the world to stimulate them visually.

By the same means, whilst the things I think about do not have to possess the capacity for thought for me to think of them, it is still the case that what seem like my thoughts actually belong to them as much as to me. And by extension, whilst the process of my existence is attuned to change in the world I do not record my attempts at change as changes but only as a continuation of the same terms of my self. So it is that whilst change is my project I am not able to satisfactorily effect it. I am waiting to be changed by that for which change is not, as far as I can make out, the project.

Why do we prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it? This has something to do with the law of unintended consequences. Every intervention into a complex system will produce outcomes that are both unpredicted and undesirable… we find we cannot successfully unify our plans with the actions which were supposed to realise the plans.

Whilst we are greatly satisfied with that which is undesigned (the shells we disinterestedly find on the beach whilst deep in thought on other matters) and whilst we are heartily pleased with that which we encounter outside of our own projects, that which surprises us and throws us back into a simple and unreflected upon relation with it, we are to the same degree discontented with that which we have authored – because it has spiralled irregularly beyond our intentions, because we are responsible for it. And we feel most responsibility for that which we are least contented with.

Transformation is typically described in terms of the actions of agents of transformation, and yet nothing would change at all if the passive figure in the relationship were not susceptible to the actions of that agent.

The world in which we live is not changing in response to the efforts of communisers and would-be revolutionaries and this has little to do with either the quality of their efforts or their selection of incorrect opportunities for intervention.

The world is not changing because the great passive, unchanging mass, is not receptive to, or even commensurate with, the messages of the agents who are attempting to act upon it.

And strangely, as soon as the work of passivity has been undertaken, that is, as soon the world becomes receptive to the works of would-be revolutionaries, it has already passed into a state of transformation in advance of the buzzing, exhortatory messages intended for it. And therefore, from the perspective of the agents of change, who would seek to lead it, the world remains equally impervious, passive, inscrutable even at its most revolutionary junctures.

frére dupont

PM: Bolo Bolo

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

I particularly enjoyed the footnotes and the statements concerning the (at the time) pertinent critique of externalisation and armed struggle,’let’s not forget, we are parts of the machine, it is us’, ‘we’re never facing an enemy, we are the enemy’ and ‘when the struggle can be put on the level involving the police or the military, we’re about to lose. Or if we do win, it’s our police or military that will have won, not us.’

During an extended footnote on the number 500 as the basic unit of human social organisation, which culminates in a discussion of those authoritarian traits which are always generated within proposed ‘designed’ communities, i.e. communities which come into existence in accordance with decision, PM’s most telling sentence precipitates thus:

‘I am frightened of Bolo Bolo.’

Fear, yes, the author is spooked at the point where he senses that what he proposes might magically come to be. If we are not frightened by the proposals we make, if we do not consider how what we propose might be even worse than what we have now, then we have not performed the basic tasks that are necessary for making any proposal. It is necessary to grasp how our unspoken reservations appear at the same moment, and contradict, our planned interventions. It is necessary because this describes precisely the fullness of the object.

Blankly stated: our intentional interventions produce unintended consequences, for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves in situations which we did not foresee, and yet, still we are responsible for them, we created them – what are we going to do about it? It is not feasible, in the real world, for outcomes to follow our plans and so we should be ready to adapt or resign. True, this is a rudimentary strategy, and yet, how many radical groups have honestly adopted it?

What we do escapes us. We cannot maintain a hold over the multiplying and elaborate sequalae of a deliberate intervention and yet almost every radical structure does attempt to contain or liquidate such complexity. In the end, realistically, it is only possible to intervene again in the new changed circumstances as a new force. But even when we know this, it is difficult to factor such precognition into our original theory, which anway, tends to map the past, rehearsing strategies from the last war, rather than anticipate the future. Maybe Bolo Bolo is not about the future at all, but rather describes the autonomous milieu of the early ’80’s, which even as it was being described was passing from its most viable stage and thus becoming an image of what could be.

It is for this reason of external relativisation that truth-orientated structures withdraw into a state of internal vigilance and sect dynamics – for such structures, whilst there is an acceptance that the message, the context, the relation changes the group’s truth cannot be revised. In the face of external relativisation, if not outright negation, the temptation is always to uncover that motive force which was only ever barely concealed in the first place, namely the justification of holding true to an identified tradition which is assailed from the outside.

One is most true-hearted, the motive for continuing the struggle states, where one holds to ‘invariance’ under circumstances of perpetual mutation; external falsification is thus taken as final proof for holding out. The logical outcome of this tendency is the fetishism of tradition for its own sake, an allegiance to the image of allegiance. Strangely, this loyalism tends to initiate a process of ossification and mineralisation which supplants, with pure objective form, that internality which once had been worth defending. The upholders of tradition and defenders of the thin true vein, have still not learnt that the Red Death is always and already inside.

The impact of planning on relationships i.e. the entirety of the ‘revolutionary’ project, is very little examined by that milieu. It seems to me that one’s own appropriate response to one’s own modest proposal should always be an intuitive, conditional, fright – ‘don’t lock me in here with this monster.’

We should always be careful to arrange within our ideas a back door, so as to change our mind when confronted with the unexpected results of that which we have advocated. The project is not to establish a line of truth which must be realised so much as a field of worst/best case scenarios, or a conceivable array of tolerable possibilities, arrived at from basic propositions. However, it is precisely this immediate self-revision which is absent within the ultraleft – which must always possess the truth, and which always externalises faults. There is so little readiness to be surprised, which is surprising within a milieu that so highly values the lived and spontaneous.

The following problem remains, and but for the one sentence quoted above it goes unaddressed in Bolo Bolo, how is it possible to theorise and express uncertainty in projects directed towards the truth?

FD