Brian Holmes on Thu, 1 Feb 2018 21:25:11 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> How do we govern ourselves? (was: Mechanical Turkish)

Hello Blake -

I think you've made a nettime first by listing the points where we agree! That's much appreciated. The list will likely stop right where it is, but still, I'd like to expand my take on this point of disagreement:

Where we differ Brian, if I understand you correctly, is in where agency lies. I tried to make this point in our original exchange and put it this way in the synopsis posted to the list (just prior to the part you quoted): “shaking our fists at institutions has not proven to be very effective politically.”

Well, critique and protest are a moment or aspect of politics, but when they do not produce results one is led to engage with other moments. Which of them can generate agency? It may be useful to idealize the state, in order to get a better grasp of its functions and possibilities, and a lot of your effort seems to lie there, Blake. However, one also has to work with real state institutions. What I've observed over the last twenty years is the persistance of entrenched forms of power (industrial, financial, military) and the extreme difficulty of bringing these powers to account in the arena of the state, where norms are legislated and resources are allocated. I think knowledge is one of the keys to collective agency, but not the only one.

Whether it's ecological, military, racial or labor issues, nothing changes until there is an applied understanding of the situation stretching from the grassroots into the state, by way of professional and educational milieus and then media (both mass media and narrowcast). The important word here is applied understanding, which you can also call hands-on knowledge or praxis. It means, for instance, that someone films a policeman killing an unarmed person, then someone else (at first an individual, then a media outlet) circulates that video, then someone else (first citizens, then lawyers) defends the right to use it as evidence, then someone else (now in the state) prosecutes the person who pulled the trigger, and further, yet someone else (who is typically a member of a political party) runs for attorney or mayor or governor. The state only comes in at the end of the sequence; but all along it, people are at grips with the issues both theoretically and operationally. Just as importantly, the people involved relay their acts and their statements to each other, often very deliberately, and the meaning of what they are doing is spread through the educational and cultural circuits: that's solidarity in action.

What I've described above is the general formula of an effective relationship of civil society to the state. More specifically, it is also the central sequence of the "woke" politics connected to Black Lives Matter. So even if there are other, less productive aspects to present-day racial politics, I still don't get why you use the term "woke" so negatively.

I'm a professional intellectual and artist and I want to be part of these kinds of political sequences. What I now focus on in my own activities are ecological questions that have become central to industrial societies and that involve everyone as producers, consumers, or both. Long ago I realized that people in the left-progressive-liberal spectrum (from the DSA to the Dems, in the US context) were increasingly ignorant of industrial production, which they simultaneously critique and depend on. Here I do see an excess of critique over applied understanding, which I think is one of your concerns. So anyway, with Marx on my side I became a lot more curious about the how, who, when, where and why of industrial production, and when I returned to the States I realized this could be seamlessly extended to agriculture. To get at least one step beyond the relative insignificance of a private person who writes essays and makes maps, I have helped found art groups in the Midwest such as the Compass and Deep Time Chicago, which among other things investigate, as publicly as possible, the how, who, when, where, and why of industrial production. I'd suggest that coal, oil and uranium are the most widely shared vectors of social violence (I am employing them right now). Corn and soybeans are not so directly connected to war as energy products, but they are just as connected to climate change and they mark out still more common ground where both individual behavior and public policy really matter. One can rightly accuse particular corporate and financial actors of making things worse in these domains (a number of them they really do) but any substantial transformation of the status quo has to be systemic and requires collective changes in behavior compelled by binding norms. There's a tremendous field of struggle here, and in my roles as an artist and intellectual I find that both the affective presence and the conceptual framing of the material practices involved are crucial to making those struggles effectively political.

Many criticize the term Anthropocene for minimizing the role of non-human actors or for extending the responsibility of climate change to all peoples and not just specific classes, However I use the term in all my current work, because human societies are at the center of ecological dynamics and everyone who metabolizes and burns is a part of global ecological change, though to vastly unequal degrees, where the inequality always matters. Now, the activities of the groups I work with are starting to scale up and we're starting to see what kinds of alliances are possible in a situation of open conflict over Anthropocene issues - conflicts rendered perfectly explicit by the Trump administration. How to participate in these conflicts without contributing to the polarization between producers and consumers that Trumpism feeds on? That's a major question. To answer it involves expanding the cultural imaginary with the help of science, art and education, because the ability to perceive the contours of an activity and to distinguish what it's good for and not good for are essential prerequisites to any kind of normative political deliberation between parties. In particular, I think there is a lot more to be done in terms of recognizing the value of people's labor in domains which nonetheless have some very bad consequences. How to reach a valuable accord with apparent political enemies? How to exit from damaging accords with apparent political friends? These questions define politics, short of violent revolution anyway (and there are many reasons for thinking that violent revolution is not on the horizon).

I do not really know what you refer to when you speak of "comradely feelings of shared power," and frankly, all your formulations of that type sound nostalgic for an imagined polity, rather than connected to any real one. Still the things I'm doing aim to generate - or simply participate in - active solidarities that cut across social divides without producing any false consensus.

I was only able to get interested in Bruno Latour when his work began to take on explicitly political dimensions, starting about ten years ago and accelerating ever since. Latour gave a great lecture recently in Chicago, at UIC. He said among other things that science is what allows us to perceive climate change, politics is what can act on it, and art is the domain of experience in which people beset by hopelessness can regain the conviction that effective political action is possible. Intriguingly, I found out by talking with him that among the artists he admires and works with are my former collaborators, the arch-radical mapmakers Bureau d'Etudes, who themselves have evolved quite a bit over the last decade. This encounter gave me an insight into the dynamics of cultural change.

I do not disavow any of my previous engagements with art and radical protest, even if I do consider most of the specific concepts, forms and goals of those practices to be obsolete. Critique does not necessarily dead-end into angry catharsis: it can also produce actionable knowledge. Art doesn't necessarily dead-end into utopia: it can also open up chances for experimentation with reality. Getting woke is a collective process, with twists and turns. Maybe the effective thing is not telling people why they were wrong in the past, but following and/or leading along pathways that can set things right in the future.

thanks for this very clarifying debate, Brian

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