Konstanze Scheidt – The Transformation of the Alternative

“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or
rather consequently, this resistance is never in a
position of exteriority in relation to power.”

             – Michel Foucault

Images of protests create the imaginary of activism, (social) media circulates it in an ever increasing speed, politics uses them for their own good (just think of the G20 protests). Imagining an alternative – an alternative form of economics, an alternative globalization, an alternative politics, or maybe just a broad idea of an alternative way of living – has become increasingly difficult over the past let’s say 30 years. What might have been a striking force for counterculture or subculture or in general alternatives, like the hope for liberation of communication through new technologies (tactical media, net activism etc.) and the emerging hope for new possibilities of collectivity (open source movement, FabLabs. Maker Movement) or – and there we also have the link to the roots of transmediale – especially in Berlin the lucky combination of a lot of young, creative people and a lot of free space waiting to be used while government was busy with organizing the reunion of East and West Germany that made possible the spreading of squats, off-galleries, half-legal clubs, or in short: the growth of a lively scene that created a lively image of the possibility to live differently, seems to be very far away, at least for me since I was born in the 90s and know them only from blurred childhood memories. But I am not only talking about the 90s. If we wanted to trace back the roots of counter-cultural resistance, we definitely would have to go back to the famous 60s, but since we face the 50th anniversary of the 68-movement, I guess we will hear enough about that. Anyways, the point is that we are facing a situation today where most of the critical demands that arose from those alternatives[1] are implemented in what most of us try to address all the time and what Guattari has already named so anticipatory ‚Integrated World Capitalism’ in the 80s. Even more, it turned out that they fit perfectly into the neoliberal story of mobilization, flexibility and individualization. Not only Berlin’s city marketing discovered the economic potential of the “creative class” (Florida 2004). The ever repeated insight: „Capitalism knows how to profit from every opportunity.“ (Stengers 2015, 11)

So the questions I will raise in my doctoral thesis concern the transformation of those alternative collective practices or more concrete the transformed conditions of possibility for those practices and the arising consequences for resistance and critique. In the so called Post-Snowden-Era, embedded in Gray Media (Fuller/Goffey 2012) and new forms of power relations that don’t primarily rely on (political) institutions or national territory anymore and therefore, as Negri and Hardt showed with there work on the formation of what they call Empire, neither have a centre nor an outside, resistance too can never act from any outside. In this essay I try to outline my approach by giving a brief introduction in the three main fields of research that are important for the project.

First it is situated in the field of aesthetic forms of activism. Political activism and aesthetic expression are closely connected and thus there is a lot of research about political art, the critical potential of art and so forth. Following Rancière and his works on the politics of aesthetics we can roughly define two different paradigms: the pedagogical and the archi-ethical. Within the first one art is supposed to teach the audience something about the society or politics they live in by showing it on stage, in an exhibition etc. The second one reacts on the problematic notion of this direct link between representation and an effect on the spectator’s behaviour. Within this paradigm art is supposed to step outside into the ‘real world’, to the bodies in the streets. And although both of this paradigms can be traced back far into the history of arts and philosophy, we still often raise this claim towards arts when it comes to politics: “We continue to try to overturn the logic of the theatre by making the spectator active, by turning the art exhibition into a place of political activism or by sending artists into the streets of derelict suburbs to invent new modes of social relations.” (Rancière 2016, 145) To overcome this shortcut that makes the critique in art spin around itself, because as already mentioned there is no outside where critical art could step into, Rancière suggests his concept of “dissensus”, the split of the senses of production, of reception and of effect. When it is that “[w]hat we look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence“ (Holmes), we shouldn’t look for a solution or an answer, but rather experience the paradox of the conflict of this split. Right there lies the possibility for a redistribution of the common order, the self-evidence of the visible, the relation between things and meaning and the bodily capacity. And it is there that art and politics connect.

But it is not enough to talk about the aesthetics of activism since every activist action is situated within infrastructures that enable and limit them. This will be the second main field of research. The questions regarding infrastructures have to be (at least) raised on two different scales: the global and the local. On the one hand the development of communication technologies like the Internet gave rise to new power structures (see above) that do “not respect existing territorialities, nor traditional ways of life, nor the social organization of our national assemblies” (Guattari 2016, 1) as Guattari already anticipated. Ned Rossiter therefore argues that we have to address this circumstance on the logistical level: “A media theory of logistics provides one index for reconstituting a political knowledge of what might be termed logistics in the age of algorithmic capitalism.” (Rossiter 2016, xv)

In contrast to that activism – and to set at least some limits to this very broad term, I am talking about activist practices in the urban context – is still situated in and often concerned with local conditions (like gentrification processes, discrimination, social injustice etc.). Thus we have to consider the process of assembling of bodies that takes place in specific spaces. Judith Butler for example emphasizes this bodily exposure as “part of the very meaning and practice of resistance” (Butler/Gambetti/Sabsay 2016, 8), because it points to failing infrastructures that are the very condition on which life depends on. This points to the entanglement with materiality, performativity and mediality, which is why we have to call every activist practice ‘supported action’. What is important here as well is that it is not about distinct, individual bodies that can assemble, but the relational dependency, “that the body, despite it’s clear boundaries, or perhaps precisely by virtue of those very boundaries, is defined by the relations that make its own life and action possible.” (Butler 2016, 16) This puts activist practices in a difficult and sometimes paradox situation: while operating in local contexts it is not hard to follow Butler’s suggestions in the context of the street or square as an ‘infrastructural good’ rather than a platform for political action which therefore also defines the bodies who assemble, but we should not forget the other scale of infrastructures: world wide data centres and the corresponding companies, self-learning algorithms, logistical media. And this is the crucial point. Negri and Hardt criticize in this context the ‘localist’ strategies of leftist that are based on a wrongly presumed dichotomy of local and global (cf. Negri/Hardt 2002, 58) which assumes a naturalness of local differences. They suggest to rather look at the production of locality, to ask for the machines (in the Deleuzian sense) that produce identities and differences. Oliver Leistert discusses the contradiction of individualizing mobile communication technologies and the collective coming together as a crowd, when “individuated subjects delocalize and deprivatize, while at the same time, deterritorialize into new machinic conjunctions which construct new modes of sensibility and relation” (Leistert 2017, 141). So it is about the tension of the (critical) potential of embodied action that is always situated in a milieu saturated with media technology – and we can add here the globalised infrastructure – that fosters the over-identification and self-governance according to the requirements of capitalism. This links to the third part of the planned project, which deals with the consequences of these analyses for the way how critique can be posed and what is the premise to do so.

It should be clear by now that resistance isn’t defined as a (re-)appropriation of some kind of primordial or prospective freedom, but as an expansion of possibilities (of thinking, perception, acting) within the existing power structures. So we have to include not only the enabling infrastructures but in general the “ecologies of practice” (Stengers 2005) and this brings us back to Rancière’s notion of the “dissensus”: Stengers as well underlines that it is not about approaching a practice on the level of a consensus but rather “as it diverges, that is, feeling its borders, experimenting with questions” (Stengers 2005, 184). So it is not only about questions of critique but also about the underlying questions of knowledge (what is of course connected to questions of power structures as Foucault pointed out). And this again opens up a link to Haraways concept of “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1988). She connects the questions about the impact of the body in relation to knowledge and the potential of collective action. For her, positioning is a key practice. This implies that subjectivity and knowledge are always processes, which is why we can always just have partial knowledge that includes paradoxes and contradictions. When we take that serious and accept not only the body in its relational dependency but also the self as always split and contradictory, we can find new possibilities for connection or, following Leistert, for conjunction. “The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another.” (Haraway 1988, 586)

So what could that mean for the possibility of critique and resistance? What could be an answer to the question, Guattari raised so often: „how can we imagine revolutionary war machines of new type that are able to be grafted on both the overt and social contradictions of IWC?“ (Guattari, 8) I started this essay with the images of protest that create the imaginary of activism, which is in effect quite limited. Ned Rossiter sums up our present condition quite pessimistic: “We can no longer harness our imagination, only click on predetermined options.” (Rossiter 2014, xv) So for him the task is to design counter-imaginaries and to do so we have “to engage in the multiplication of communication formats.“ (Rossiter 2014, 11) This was key for the tactical media activists amongst others. But it is not only a question of appropriating technology for one’s own good. This is too close to a technocratic logic and therefore too easily put back into the circle of commodities. So what could technocollectives be without becoming just another peak in the never ending neoliberal turn?

First of all, it is not about giving the right answer. Considering the above mentioned aspects, I want to come back to the potential of artistic practices and why the imaginary might be so important. For John Dewey „Imagination is the chief instrument of the good.” (Dewey 1980, 348), because „[o]nly imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual.“ (Dewey, 345) This, of course, has to be combined with the aspect of partiality and embodied vision, “we need to reclaim that sense [of vision, A/N] to find our way through all the visualizing tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies that have transformed the objectivity debate” (Haraway 582) and at the same time we have to reappropriate „the capacity to fabricate one’s own question, and not responding to the trick questions that are imposed on us.“ (Stengers 2015, 94)

We should take that serious for our own practices and also for this workshop. We should seek for the right questions, the ones that are able to change something, the ones who trigger dangerous thinking. „There will be no response other than the barbaric if we do not learn to couple together multiple, divergent struggles and engagements in this process of creation, as hesitant and stammering as it may be.“ (Stengers 2015, 50)

 

 

[1] I want to stress that with the notion of alternatives I’m not talking about individual human subjects. I chose to use this term to point out the collective in the wide range of resistance and that those collectives are embedded in certain environments (social, political, technological) on which they depend and by which their practices are enabled.

 

Cited works:

Butler, Judith: “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance”, in: Judith Butler/Zeynep Gambetti/Leticia Sabsay (ed.): Vulnerability in Resistance, Durham (Duke University Press) 2016.

Butler, Judith/Gambetti, Zeynep/Sabsay, Leticia (ed.): Vulnerability in Resistance, Durham (Duke University Press) 2016.

Dewey, John: Art as Experience, New York (Perigee Books) 1980.

Florida, Richard: The rise of the creative class and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, New York (Basic Books) 2004.

Fuller, Matthew/Goffey, Andrew: Evil Media, London/Cambridge, MA (MIT Press) 2012.

Guattari, Félix: Integrated World Capitalism and Molecular Revolution, https://adamkingsmith.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/integrated-world-capitalism-and-molecular-revolution.pdf.

Haraway, Donna: “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectie, in: Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1988, pp. 575-59.

Holmes, Brian: The Affectivist Manifesto. Artistic Critique in the 21st Century, https://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/the-affectivist-manifesto/

Leister, Oliver: “Mobile Phone Signals and Protest Crowds”, in: Leeker, Martina/Schipper, Immanuel/Beyes, Timon (ed.): Performing the Digital, Bielefeld (transcript) 2017.

Negri, Antonio/Hardt, Michael: Empire. Die neue Weltordnung, Frankfurt/New York (Campus Verlag) 2002.

Rancière, Jacques: Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics, London/New York (Bloomsbury) 2016.

Rossiter, Ned: Software, Infrastructure, Labor. A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares, New York (Routledge) 2016.

Stengers, Isabelle: In Catastrophic Times. Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Lüneburg (meson press) 2015.

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3 Comments

  1. Dear Konstanze. This is such an interesting text to me – It is a text that, in a very fruitful way I think, is concerned with questions, rather than answers. I sense an underlying distinction between a revolutionary potential and the potential of local effects; a world revolting event with global effects and practices situated in local contexts causing local effects only. Would it be possible to imagine a political potential not being solely revolutionary or solely local? Even if there is no outside to step out onto, I sense that you open up towards imagining this – imagining art activism as being able to illuminate the horizon, as José Esteban Muñoz would have it. And in this illumination of the boundaries and limits of the infrastructures, the power structures, that we find ourselves immersed in – in as you put it by citing Stengers: “feeling its borders and experimenting with questions” – we might discover small cracks, gaps and structural breakdowns, from which new knowledge, new meaning, new questions could emerge. I haven’t read Rancières Dissensus yet, but from what I can read in your text, this might also be what that concept is about. 


    Anyway, I like this notion of “not being about giving the right answers”, because it opens up for exploring the complexities and paradoxes of something – of certain art practices or activist actions for example – without shutting down the possible potentials of them. And so – and I’m sorry if I took a long time to get to this question – I’m interested in what you think could come from not necessarily being interested in answers, or in other words: could you elaborate a bit on what you think the potential of aesthetic forms of activism is, and why art activist imageries, as you state at the end of your text, are important in a context of some sort of contemporary crisis in the practice of resistance and thinking alternatives?

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  2. Hi Konstanze, I find your interrogation of the alternative really interesting which touches on some questions I’m also tackling about forms of resistance and what it might look like today without being subsumed into a neoliberal logic. In the end there is a fetishisation of the alternative across the cultural and technology sectors which often becomes confused with ‘authentic’ and mimetic forms.

    An example of aestheticisation to partly respond to Lauralea’s comment is V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition looking at the aesthetics of political movements, but also perhaps rendering them impotent in the process of placing it within a museum context. So what are the possibilities of an alternative – or re-thinking the alternative without positing an relation between inside and outside? The question is also interesting when thinking about China in which explicit political dissent is not possible. There are other possibilities for change that operate in collaboration with governments. Perhaps it links to a notion of how we work with and through institutions themselves rather than against them. The leftist political imaginaries are at an ends, in what ways can we reorder and reimagine possibilities for change? Will you be looking at artistic practices like Chto Delat or other socially engaged artists or more broadly at imagining new forms of activism today that can make real change vs simulations of change?

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  3. Hi Konstanze and thanks for a really nice introduction to your thesis work. I like the way you plan to combine infrastructural and aesthetic strands of thinking and much like Lea, I also appreciated your way of picturing critique/research as a matter of striving towards conflicts, paradoxes and splits, rather than clear cut answers. You also end by arguing that research (and cultural critique) should trigger dangerous thinking and I couldn’t agree more – although personally, I sometimes feel it is difficult to pin point precisely where such dangers might reside. Where do you think we may find the most dangerous terrains of thinking in our current situation?

    I’d also love to hear you expand on what you mean by stating that every activist practice is a “supported action.” In relation to this, you mention the entanglement of materiality, performativity and mediality. Are you suggesting that activism cannot be understood outside of these three concepts? If so, then how are they connected, and by which mechanisms of power/agency?

    Look forward to hearing more about your work next week!

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