I am so thrilled to have presented, with the great Julian Chehirian, our short film on attention, labor, and capital at the Monira Foundation. We had a fantastic Q and A and honestly I never imagined I’d be a filmmaker doing a screening. It was rad. Thank you to Jim Strong for composing the most brilliant music and to Julian for flatly stating that “we could make a movie” in reply to my saying how I’d always wanted to but didn’t really know how…
I learned how to use imovie on my phone so I made a little vid of the celebrations. Public streets, public parks, dancing and joy and a feeling of people power in the streets… this is the energy that fuels all good things. Onward!!!
The Situations collective has just published the first of our pandemic papers: Revolution in the Virocene. Check it out and circulate!
I wrote this in response to a prompt that was very particular and might not make sense outside a certain context. But the jist is that we were asked to see around us, something that had the characteristics of a fuse. There is a four part protocol of attention deployed here: encounter, attending, negating (see a filament, not a fuse, let it burn), and realizing. It’s a pretty extraordinary protocol for being present, and I like what my beach looked like when seen through its lens.
Protocol of Re-fusal
Encounter: Identify a fuse. What does it protect?
I am on the beach, casting about for something that connects, protects, defuses – maybe the dune? The jetty? These are human-built protectors, they defuse the ocean’s power and protect the beach and the town. They imitate nature and they repeat. The lifeguard stands, too. But no, this feels forced.
I am thinking aloud; my friend says, “the beach is the fuse.” (after my explaining attentional traps, she said, right, like the Duchamp peephole at the Art Museum, remember how you couldn’t look through until you grew tall enough? so its very construction made you desire to do its will, because it knew you wanted so much to look? YES EXACTLY!) And yes, the beach is the thing worth protecting.
It protects dolphins, cormorants, seagulls, crabs, terns, royal and ruddy, skimmers, foxes, flounders, minnows, rabbits, fisherpeeps, pelicans, toddlers, sanderlings, old people, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. It protects the humans among these creatures from burning out; this summer it protects them, too, from the weird and isolating world we all left and to which we, at the end of this strange but, impossibly, still beautiful summer, have to return.
Here, we are all protected from the bad news. Everything seems ok. Except you don’t hug your friends, or your father, even though he is dying. Or because he is dying. Also sometimes boats go by with Trump flags that say “TRUMP 2020 NO MORE BULLSHIT” and they make you feel both vulnerable and ready to blow.
Attending: Is the fuse blown?
If the fuse is blown, people hardly know it. There are hints: sometimes we forget our masks when we head into town. We have to turn around and prepare to cover our faces. There is plastic in the ocean and fascism in the air; you can’t see it but you can feel it, sort of. Something has blown. Or is about to blow? Not knowing which is maybe the weirdest part.
But also, no. Somehow, inexplicably, the beach continues to defuse, to re-fuse, to refuse. In its incessant change, of color, of sky, of breeze, of dolphins and gulls playing, saying, look at us, THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU GUYS it never stops being perfect, perfectly itself, and it brings peace, it defuses you, it calms you, it breaks your overheated circuits.
It receives our stories and our footprints and all our hopes for the next wave to wash the pressure away, like a breath, in, out, the pressure that builds up can be washed away. But we all know that at some point, the ocean will be full of our refuse, the point will be flooded from the warmth of the air and the pressure of the rains. So it hasn’t blown yet, I guess. Then again, we did have a storm last week and the power was out for two days. That was very unusual; everyone said, yeah, 2020.
Negation. It is not a fuse, it is a filament. As it burns, enjoy its light.
As it burns, feel its light.
This one is easy. This is the good part. If feeling the light is the negation, then the beach is the negation. Yes. Of isolation, of alienation, of worry, of shoes. The light is orange, and you can bathe in it. You can breathe it in. You can swim in it. It negates all the blocks. It burns, it nourishes, and it is fucking magnificent.
Realization: What needs to be refused? What needs to be re-fused?
What needs to be refused is everything that keeps us from this place, where we are fused with the world and with one another. We need to refuse the way in which this moment is considered marginal and the other is “real life.” The marginalization of play, of our natural selves, of natural time, this has to be refused. It’s a matter of life and death at this point. Under the logic of production not for need but for profit, every living system on earth is in a state of decline. I refuse this. I reject it. I want to light a fuse and blow it up. No more bullshit.
All I have ever wanted is to infuse refusal with this, the beach. I am not the first person to have had this thought.
What needs to be re-fused? The sand and the sole of the foot. The water and the flesh. The generations. The tribe. The skin of the mother and her babies. The water and the land. The human and the nonhuman. The homo and the ludens. People and the energy that makes waves. Also the oceanic and the intellectual.
It is scary to think of leaving this place; it seems to be absorbing, holding off the disaster.
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)
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
Just bought my nerdy mike headset and belt mounted speaker. Here’s me, in The Indypendent, explaining why. Teaching Outside This Fall
Last month, Democracy@Work invited me to contribute a short video to their “What is Left?” series about the current conjuncture. It wasn’t easy to speak for such a short time lol but I tried! You can find it here: Pandemic Politics
Here’s a little vid I made before heading out today…
Damn, who knew everything could change so quickly.
Never have political positions once deemed deeply radical, had such currency as common sense: property is theft – who “owns” life saving equipment? Who “owns” a hospital? The idea itself is today patently absurd.
Another: production must be directed toward human need and human happiness and not profit; the private market is useless for things that really matter: housing, education, health. Even right wing free market doctrinaires are for nationalization, but “only during the crisis…” The fantasy is that afterwards, we will go back to normal. But when a ruling ideology has been so thoroughly discredited, there is no going back. Besides, it has never been the market, but the state and, in the wake of the neoliberal hollowing out of the state, transnational finance, that has been regulating society. This too is now clear. And what has been seen cannot be unseen.
And third: the machine of production, the one that always seemed too enormous and overwhelming to be stopped, shifted, turned around, even in the face of the destruction of civilization – it can stop. And now, in an instant, “there is no alternative” has been replaced by “whatever happens, nothing will ever be the same.” Everyone good at power politics – from corporate elites to Irish nationalists – has always known that crisis is opportunity. This is ours. The ideology that says radical transformation is unrealistic: this, too, has been irrevocably discredited.
The society of the virus is something totally new, unpredictable even by the all knowing algorithm (though of course we could have known etc.), unprecedented. The feeling everywhere is that history is happening. There is an openness. A sense that things could go either way. And few plan more than a day or so out.
So what then is history? “History” today is this viral event, and viruses are essentially spatial more than temporal. All our linear notions of time, including that old hanger on, progress, are peeled back, deconstructed. Today one lives in the eternal now. People say regularly that what was once a month, now feels like an eternity. Neoliberal political and economic leaders chomp at the bit to get the machine moving again, to progress, to grow. But a slowness, a thoughtfulness, has descended, and it won’t lift easily.
In the twenty first century, social media has increasingly become the social, so the viral has increasingly become the currency the system’s connective tissue. In this way, the concept of the viral has been merging with the concept of the social. Today that merging has become complete. The virus is what we all do together, what organizes us. In the absence of the state, of much of civil society, the viral has become the social.
No longer just metaphor for the social; the virus enacts the most sociality, the most common purpose, the most solidarity (not without exceptions of course) that the contemporary world has seen. Under the consciousness of the viral, we are all in this together. Like everything social, the suffering is not evenly distributed but moves along familiar and ugly channels. Still, a few months ago it was established wisdom that Americans, for instance, were living in different “bubbles.” This is arguably no longer the case.
If finance and the market represent the anti-social, and the primitive and future commune are the social; if the market and finance feed on atomization and isolation, and communism feeds on connection, then the viral moment may prepare the ground for the transcendence of capitalism or, as Marx put it replace “the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”
What could the viral scene show us about where to go from here, how to build on the potential for working class solidarity offered by this moment? What kind of thinking does this new moment of Being call us toward? What is political thinking in the viral scene?
As far as a policy agenda goes, the Bernie movement – an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street that skipped straight from an anarchist cultural intervention to a set of social democratic policy demands, without building worker power on the ground, without which no political gains for the class are possible – has done its part. Without this movement, the idea of public health care, for instance, would not so easily have taken its rightful place in American common sense as what we need from here on out. Still, the raw power of the working class vis a vis capital is, as ever, what no revolution, political or otherwise, can live without.
An explicitly viral movement logic has animated the moments of greatest working class power in the west. Called syndicalism, Larkinism, revolutionary industrial unionism, it was the animating logic of the IWW, the most powerful and influential labor movement formation in US history. It shaped the union battles that led to the formation of the CIO and to several decades of rising wages, declining hours, and culturally explosive working class leverage.
This spontaneous viral labor politics of the IWW’s revolutionary industrial unionism meant that workers who struck would be supported by other groups of workers in horizontal solidarity. Anything coming from a struck shop is “tainted goods” and won’t be touched. In this way, the strike spreads like wildfire, like a virus.
We build toward revolution through a proliferation of sympathetic, solidaristic strikes at the point of production (and, arguably, reproduction) and these strikes spread until they become a general strike, during which the workers take the reins of society and run it for themselves, without capitalists. The IWW’s defining institution, the One Big Union, often misunderstood to mean one union structure, representing all workers, always instead referred to the syndicalist, the viral logic of the sympathetic strike. The central idea of syndicalist labor politics is that “an injury to one is an injury to all” – this is the working class logic of the virus.
These are precisely the most hopeful, the most important politics we are seeing today: instacart, amazon, ups drivers, workers using their leverage, at a maximum for the moment, wildcat striking in their own workplaces and inspiring their fellow workers to strike alongside them. It is, like so much in this moment, unprecedented, to see workers without a union engage in coordinated wildcat strikes, all on the same day, with the same set of demands, and win.
This is a muscle that has atrophied. When we exercise it more and more, make it strong again, our demands will become more radical as well — more than just safety equipment at work, we will demand, we will imagine, the kind of life we want to live. For many, the interruption in routine means there is space today to consider this.
The imperative of neoliberalism is the imposition of endless useless bullshit jobs. not even for profit, but as Marcuse showed, for control, to keep people from realizing the objective possibilities of freedom that the system itself opens up. Bullshit jobs are on hiatus at the moment – the virus shows what is essential work and what is not.
This opens up a space for thinking, and for politics. We have only to understand that being is calling us to think the viral, and to avoid logics of purification and instead take the viral seriously on its own terms. In Heideggerian terms, what has brought us to this crisis point is the dominance of the technological relationship to being (see Wallace, big farms, big flu) and what we are called to do is thinking, which is less about dominating or producing and more about moving toward Being, which draws us toward it in what we call thinking. We are called to meet being, by thinking.
And being is, in important respects, viral. Eros, life, can be thought in terms of the viral. From dandelion seeds in the wind to laughter in a crowd to ideas in the age of the internet to the reproduction of cancer cells, life moves according to a viral logic. The question, as ever, is which side are you on?
The virus also brings us all to an existential moment – and this valuing of life, of the now as all you’ve got, is central to revolutionary working class politics. Only if you think you have endless moments would you sell this one cheaply to increase the hoard of some asshole. When you know it’s limited, you slow down, try to make it last. Smell the flowers, feel the breeze.
This is precisely the ethos of a strategy of the refusal of work – if the wc is to gain leverage, power, through the withholding of labor power, through the strike and then the viral, sympathetic strike, ending up in one big union, or general strike, which prefigures the new society “in the ashes of the old,” its fuel is an antiwork culture, a culture that opposes the productivist ethic that has been destroying both the planet and the human spirit for centuries. The slowness, the pause, that the virus brings, allows for the possibility of this.
Paradoxically, then, the virus is negated by the very logic that it encourages. The slow down that it, has, unexpectedly, brought about, allows for an existential moment and a pause, allows us to see that the machine can stop, that radical change can happen, and that we can live a better way. The very deadliness of the virus sharpens our perception; allows the possibility of thinking something new. If we answer the call of Being today, we think toward its viral moment, toward a strategy for working class power and for revolution.
About a month ago, we did a panel on the upcoming election at College of Mount Saint Vincent. My talk starts 30 minutes in, and I think it’s true now more than ever that we need to be pressing for public health and the public good.
Fifty years of neoliberal privatization (also known as capitalism after a brief Keynesian interregnum) have left us in the worst possible position to deal with what is coming. But as per the lines of “Solidarity Forever,” we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” The union makes us strong.
You can start by helping to organize mutual aid networks in your neighborhood. To each according to what he needs, from each according to his ability. It’s pretty simple. Love and solidarity to you all.