For Stanley

I gave a eulogy for my teacher and friend, the great Stanley Aronowitz, at the celebration of his life held in Prospect Park last week.

My name is Kristin Lawler. Like many people here today, Stanley Aronowitz was my teacher, and my friend.

I can’t help thinking that the funeral of a bigger than life working class radical should be an occasion to reinvigorate the political spirit that animated that life, to recommit to it. From death, a resurrection of the spirit.

Stanley would totally make fun of me for how hopelessly catholic that whole idea is, but it’s not only a catholic thing.

It’s also a well known battle cry on the left when the great ones die: You know, don’t mourn, organize.

Of course that’s what Joe Hill, legendary Wobbly songwriter and organizer, telegrammed to Big Big Haywood just before he was killed: Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.

But we do mourn. It’s a terrible shock when someone we love, someone important in our lives, passes, no matter how much we knew it was coming. But coming together over the death of a friend, a comrade, a teacher, is something else too. It is also an occasion to organize: to refresh the collective memory and collective hope that fuel working class struggle.

I think a truly great life, lived with passion and commitment to the cause, deserves that. And I think Stanley might smile on that idea, with that familiar devilish twinkle in his eye.

Jim Larkin, at Hill’s funeral, put it this way: “Therefore, comrades, over this great heart, now stilled in death, let us take up his burden, rededicate ourselves to the cause that knows no failure, for which he cheerfully gave his all.”

The cause, Larkin said, was working class emancipation, and Stanley indeed cheerfully gave his all to it. He spent his life creating spaces animated by it – democratic, open spaces of radical freedom, fueled by an eye for how power operates and a utopian imagination.

A radical imagination: what Stanley insisted is central to the struggle for a life beyond alienated labor, beyond professionalized, disciplinary bound “scholar-shit” (one of so many great phrases of his), beyond capitalism.

In a transitional time like the one we are living in. people must be able to imagine something radically different, radically utopian, radically free. And this imagination is not like some wispy reflection. It is material. You have to build spaces in which people experience it. Stanley didn’t just analyze the state of forces on the ground, think through what he always said was most important –  “idears” – he built spaces that were materially prefigurative of what a new world, a free world, could look like. In this model, education and political struggle are one.

Stanley had been building this kind of space for decades by the time I met him, in the early nineties.

To this day I can’t believe my good fortune, to have found myself in one of those spaces. What incredible luck. I thought I was going to grad school to become a sociologist.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Walking into CUNY for the first time, looking for the classroom, I encountered a happy commotion, a group that was way livelier than what I’d experienced in academia up to that point. And at the moving center of it all, a man, bigger than life, laughing and talking with the students jockeying for his attention.

When class started the discussion expanded, Stanley sitting back and listening intently to what students had to say, asking questions, issuing provocations, reading from the text, cultivating clarity of thought.

The classes were more like gatherings, vibrant, overflowing with people from all over the grad center, not just in sociology, coming to think, to read, to write, to engage. Filmmakers and revolutionaries, novelists, philosophers, anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, autonomists, literary critics, lower east side squatters, transit workers, Zapatistas, kids just out of college and older union brothers and sisters who’d read Stanley’s books and come to study. People always hanging around afterwards, still talking, or following along with Stanley, over to his office or up to the bar to continue the conversation. There was this amazing bar in the cafeteria at the top of the old grad center, characterized by clouds of cigarette smoke and the din of conversation – in Spanish, in Greek, in Italian, in New Yowk City English. The bar, which we called “Laddy’s” after the distinguished Irish bartender, Laddy, served drinks all afternoon and evening and there too, Stanley would be in the center of conversations about working class power, jazz, Hollywood, rock and roll, Earth First, Act Up, Bertoldt Brecht, Ben Shahn, Scorsese, and the newest cop show on tv.

The scene was funny as hell too, and in academic spaces, that’s rare. We learned that friendship and laughter are not things that boring political struggle earns you – they are its very fire. They animate it, and without the joys and pleasures of being alive, of being human, politics is an empty form.

We learned a lot about the world from Stanley’s stories, too, which we devoured: of the encounter between the old left and the new, an encounter that shaped him, and so, has shaped all of us students. We learned about OCAW and civil rights and union halls and be-ins, and we learned from his critique of capital’s division of mental and manual labor never to reproduce the privileging of the former. It was all just work, and all of us needed less of it.

We modeled ourselves on someone who didn’t lie, who always called it as he saw it, who never bullshitted. And he didn’t take any crap, or suffer fools gladly, and it made everyone around him feel free.

He had a healthy disrespect for institutions, especially the educational ones that only served to reproduce capitalist social relations.

Institutionalization, he said, is the repository of scarcity.

He taught us to see the difference between the energy of the labor movement and the rituals and structures of the unions. To see that without real movement power institutions become irrelevant at best and at worst, will sell you down the river with false promises.

In some ways the moment I describe was unique. A time in which the engagement between poststructuralism and Marxism that characterized Stanley’s work at that time, was so much on the table. But it was also all of a piece, all the parts of Stanley’s long, well lived life, the Free School and Studies on the Left, Bayard Rustin and the Green Party campaign, Social Text and False Promises, the PSC and the Center for Cultural Studies, they all rhymed with each other.

Once when we were working together at the union, I organized a concert and rally that had NYC musicians set to music newly unearthed lyrics from the Woody Guthrie archive. I asked Stanley to speak and of course he brought the house down with his remembrance of the CP hootenannies he’d attended as a kid and his reflection on the singalong and the tradition of song and culture in the labor movement. And he sang, beautifully! He literally sung the importance of radical democratic cultural and political spaces where workers enjoyed life and felt the solidarity required for direct action, for building power.

Until he retired, Stanley’s office and his center continued to be such a space. I’d go visit him there and as ever, it would be filled with books and conversation and laughter and groups of people, arguing the world, planning the Left Forum, hanging out.

That was education, to him, and he kept it up until the very end, even after he retired and his health declined, still holding classes with the Institute for the Radical Imagination, the organization he and his students founded and that, along with its journal, Situations, will continue to carry on his work.

The fact that so many of those he taught over the years have their own intellectual progeny, have created their own spaces in which they continue this intellectual and political lineage, is also testament to the power of this kind of engaged and cheerful group “close reading” of the world. It’s generative.

I wish Stanley were here to weigh in on this moment, as cultural workers threaten a nationwide strike for shorter hours, as American workers overall are using the most direct of direct action to tell their bosses, en masse, I would prefer not to.

But that spicket has been turned off.

Losing someone dear means that the loss never goes away. It always remains. It sucks. I never could go all the way with “don’t mourn, organize,” because we do mourn the passing of those we love. But in gathering in this most central ritual commemoration, something else can happen too. When we all come together in the name of someone we love and on whom we have modeled ourselves in some way (and I think all of Stanley’s students can say this), the person and what they looked toward in the world is with us. Fills us, together, with their spirit.

May each of us, may all of us, who have been influenced and inspired by Stanley, rededicate ourselves today to the practices that he taught us. May we all be as brilliantly attuned to our world, and with such good humor. As capitalism careens violently toward its own limits, we’ll need what he taught us:

To build spaces of the radical imagination, on the page, and in the world.

To say what you mean, tell the truth, be who you are, proudly.

Be present, pay attention, the world is enthralling if you don’t tune out.

Think seriously but do it over dinner and martinis, over music, watching movies, with comrades, enjoy.

Laugh. Shit is funny. And never ever stop fighting the good fight.

Stanley, thank you, for all of it. You will be with us every time we are together and do a close reading of the world animated by great love for it, by intense hope for its revolutionary future. In the words of one of the many great Wobbly songs I learned from you, “we shall bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” Let’s honor our teacher and friend, our great comrade, by continuing this work, together. Solidarity forever.

Back to the 30s?

I am really honored to have an essay in this wonderful and timely collection and I was thrilled to participate in the book talk put on by the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics featuring CUNY Grad Center alumni who had contributed to the book. I am kind of a spaz on zoom stuff but the whole event was really interesting and the book kicks ass. Check it out…

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…

On finding fuses

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.

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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