Fold Your Punch Cards

Dig the Attention Liberation Front. And stay tuned.

Notes on the creation of the Attention Liberation Front: Drafted by the Anticapitalist working group of the Friends of Attention, August 2020

We begin with a proposition: the ability to be present in the world with “unmixed attention” to its “astonishing reality” is not a privilege of the leisure class. It is fundamental to the good life and it is best understood as not only the goal of political struggle but as the means to achieve it as well . More than the reward for the liberation from work, attention is properly central to the struggle for this liberation.

Capital needs us to be distracted from our lives. It also instrumentalizes our attention at every turn. In today’s digital attention economy in which “eyeballs” are incessantly monetized, yes, but also in the more old fashioned way in which our expenditure of energy and attention form the basis of the production of profit and of control for the ruling class.

When collective attention is loosed from the interpellating structures of everyday life under capitalism, the world cracks open. It becomes more available to understanding, and to transformation.

How does attention play a part in this very loosening? In two ways: by refusing distraction and by detourning the instrumentalization of attention.

In the incessant flow of images across our screen, accompanied by the invasion of work into every iota of our lifeworld, our powerlessness is cultivated. We can’t focus. We can’t stop, consider, take to heart.

Today’s uprising is only the most recent example of the simple fact that when everyday life is slowed down, suspended, and especially when something emerges — a virus, a nuclear threat — to provoke our existential consciousness, the traits that we share and that stubbornly resist incorporation into the machine of production, surface.. They cultivate a new vision. They attend to its becoming.

True attention is always dangerous.

(This has never been lost on the ruling class, who, as Marx famously described it, “is like the sorcerer, who cannot control the powers he has called up from the nether world.” Yet capital continuously attempts to incorporate what opposes it. The move to jam the most radical insights of the black liberation movement about the essential relationship between racial division, policing, and capitalist exploitation, into HR policies and PR campaigns, is only the latest example of this tendency.)

A creative antagonism shapes the very material structures of the world we inhabit. As Antonio Negri says, “show me a business innovation and I will show you a worker rebellion.” Capital sees clearly the rebellious, the “obstinate traits” that Kluge and Negt claim form the true subject of history. Do we?

When we attend to them, we may begin to see the raw material of our own power.

There is a long tradition of anti-capitalist action that has embraced something a lot like attention as a revolutionary strategy. In this tradition, radicals from Paul LaFargue and the “slacker” saboteurs of the Industrial Workers of the World, to anti-imperialist Surrealists to the Situationists and SDS’s “IWW/Situationist journal” Radical America – have used the slowdown that collective attention can bring into being as a means to power. And thus, as a means to bring into being more spaces, more time, for collective presence.

There is a simple dynamic to be understood: collective oversupply of labor to the capitalist market lowers wages and decreases leverage. This is why today, we work more than ever and have less power and less free time than ever. To reverse this trend, we return to the tactics of sabotage, of detournement, of attentive and joyful slacking.

For fifty years, we have lived under the neoliberal regime, innovated precisely as a reaction to what we might call the attentional practices of the postwar period in the developed countries of the west. This does not mean that these practices were ineffective. In fact, it is a testament to their enduring power.

In 1981 – the same year as the breaking of the PATCO strike, as the publication of History and Obstinacy, a year that the working class took a generational knock out punch, Andre Gregory said  “I think it’s quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.”

Today, however, is a different moment.

The insane hysteria of the state – unleashed whenever black and white workers acknowledge a common stake in liberation, fight side by side in solidarity, as comrades – rightly feels terrifying. But it fundamentally exposes capital’s weakness.

Creative cooptation is a played out strategy. Now the name of the game for capital is brutal repressiveness. When a system has to admit outright that mass casualties are the price of business as usual, it needs an unusual amount of policing in order to secure assent. Capital today is distracted. Back on its heels. This time, we are the nimble, creative ones, innovating hacks that build power under the radar.

“Be your own boss.” The empty promise to the gig worker, really nothing more than the imperialism of capitalist time sensibility and work discipline – this is where we strike first. Fifty years of neoliberalism have worked to implant the boss inside the head of the worker. Its removal is our project.

We begin with the liberation of attention from the instrumentalizing logic of the boss.

With practices of attention, and the faith that comes with knowing that joy and presence are as contagious as any virus, we suborn sabotage.

We proudly situate the Manifesto for the Freedom of Attention as a new front in a long and powerful history of struggle. The Attention Liberation Front.

Selected bibliography (a brief map of an attentional path)

  1. Amazon Flex and Amazon Mechanical Turk

Two technological innovations in automated, underpaid, socially fragmenting work from Amazon. We probed these platforms’ websites, went through the onboarding process as new employees, and analyzed the labor experience that they entail. Flex: You use your own vehicle to deliver packages for Amazon. You join Amazon’s complex meshwork of employees and contractors to take on a chunk (defined by time slots and neighborhoods) of packages to deliver (imagine Uber but for package delivery). Mechanical Turk: A new way to outsource data-entry, and a new market-platform for cognitive labor.  “Crowdsourcing is a good way to break down a manual, time-consuming project into smaller, more manageable tasks to be completed by distributed workers over the Internet (also known as ‘microtasks’). MTurk “enables companies to harness the collective intelligence, skills, and insights from a global workforce to streamline business processes, augment data collection and analysis, and accelerate machine learning development”.

  1. Lubar, Stephen. “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate: a Cultural History of the Punch Card.” Journal of American Culture, Vol. 15 Issue 4, Winter 1992.

Used for a century for data tracking, entry, and analysis, the computer punch card became a symbol for the machine technology that was, according to much mid twentieth century critical social theory, coming to instrumentalize and dominate humanity in the Western world. The Berkeley Free Speech movement, in fact, explicitly used the punch card as a symbol of what was happening to students, and what they were resisting, within what Berkeley president Clark Kerr had called unironically “the knowledge factory.” Punch cards whose blank spaces spelled “STRIKE” and “FSM” became part of the iconography of the student movement, shorthand for the machine-ready, alienated uniformity demanded by the logic of capital and the bureaucratic state.

  1. Parikka, Jussi. “Imaginary Objects: Mapping Weird Media.” In What is Media Archaeology?. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Untimely media, whether mechanical apparatuses or electronic communications devices, coalesce the desires, fantasies and needs of not just their own time, but also the era that preceded them, and the era that stands beyond their grasp. Machine and media fantasies exceed and form a surplus on the border of technical/functional capacity. Needs and fantasies influence technological development. They are frustrated by technologies. They sublimate technological possibilities into styles of feeling and imagination. Weird, untimely medias can serve as thresholds towards and repositories of past intersections of desire, imagination and possibility as they are embodied by the functional possibilities and mediums that technologies make tangible. (Example: Judge Schreber’s paranoid fantasies and imaginations of aerial monks transcribing his every thought, occuring in the historical moment of the European human being’s telephonic and telegraphic envelopment.)

  1. Kluge, Alexander, and Oskar Negt. History and Obstinacy. Zone Books, 2014.

Negt and Kluge see obstinacy—resistance to absolute subordination and instrumentalization—as the conjoined twin of the human capacity for labor and production. Centering as much on the body as on the mind, their concern is with the territorialization of the subject by the logic of capital, but also with human beings’ subterranean capacities (often and usually exceeding their conscious awareness) for re-establishing equilibrium and refusing). History unfolds in a staggered, delayed manner, with past imaginaries extending into unprecedented conditions. Negt and Kluge’s human, a half-baked creature, is completed not by Freud’s animal drives but by the distribution of libidinal influences particular to historically situated forces of subjectification. In this “decapitated” history in which collective imaginations and understandings transcend individual life-spans, Negt and Kluge turn to German fairytales (distinctly emerging from a culture of “introjected imperialism” in which it was somehow necessary to distinguish what was ‘inside’ from what was ‘outside’ of the self, what is safe and welcome and what is not), among other artifacts of culture, as repositories of obstinate armament and resilience for what Devin Fore, the editor, describes as a moment of profound political disappointment and hibernatory preparation after 1969.

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