Strike Till Retirement (notes on Precarias a la Deriva’s ‘A Very Careful Strike’)

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[Note on the translators introduction: Crucial for our understanding of the particular fusion of political activity with knowledge production that comes out of Precarias a la Deriva is their novel use of the Situationist derive. As they note in ‘First Stutterings of Precarias a la Deriva,’ “In our particular version, we opt to exchange the arbitrary wandering of the flaneur…for a situated drift which would move through the daily spaces of each one of us, while maintaining the tactics multisensorial and open character. Thus the drift is converted into a moving interview, crossed through by the collective perception of the environment” (34). One could even say that more than a mere modification of situationist methodology, Precarias a la Deriva’s methodology of the ‘moving interview’ combines the dérive (and its attention to the ways in which the reproduction of urban existence liberates or constrains the precarity that conditions the reproductive labour (unwaged, emotional, affective, sex, and care work), and particularly women’s labour) with the form of the ‘Worker’s Inquiry’ – the latter published by Marx in 1880 and was an attempt at gathering responses to 101 questions from workers themselves with the aim of achieving an exact and precise knowledge of what contributes to or detracts from working class struggle.]

 

  1. Sex, care, and attention are not pre-existent object, but rather historically determined social stratifications of affect, traditionally assigned to women.

Precarias a la Deriva begin their argument for a ‘very careful strike’ by understanding that the current form taken by unwaged reproductive labour (sex, care, attention) is the outcome of a long historical sequence. And the common element that binds contemporary unwaged labour to previous instances is the reproduction of patriarchal gender norms; these norms that split subjectivity thereby forcing upon it the choice between the good mother or the bad whore:

“The history of sex and care as strata is ancient. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, both were associated with a bipolar female model, which located on one (positive) side the Virgin Mary, virtuous woman, mother of god, and on the other, (negative) side Eve, the great sinner of the Apocalypse, the transgressor, the whore” (34).

Thus, if reproductive labour is a historical formation and not a natural given, then its chief accomplishment is what Precarias rightly call the ‘stratification of affect’ – the process of rendering certain modes of being (sex, care, attention) as attributes of some bodies (women) and not others (men). And following from the Christianity of the Medieval period we see the reappearance of this stratification of affect, but now in the period of the Enlightenment. The specific process of stratification of the Enlightenment period, however, would become something unlike that of the Middle Ages and would erect legal sanctions in place of religious doctrine in order to modify and reproduce these old divisions between the woman of virtue and the woman of vice and further distinguish one’s womanly virtue (loving-mother, loyal housewife, single-virgin) from her vicious double (transgressor-whore). And it is due to this substitution of secular right for religious judgment, says Precarias, that we can find in places such as the US, Great Britain, and Australia, the creation of laws aimed at regulating the exchange of sexual services for money, ‘which in many areas…included the regulation of the exchange of sexual services for money. It was in this manner that prostitution appeared in the way we know it today, that is to say, as a specialized occupation or profession within the division of labour of patriarchal capitalism, and how it was restricted to determine spaces and subjects (ceasing to be an occasional resource for working and peasant women)” (35). Moreover, and regarding our present moment, it is this historical formation of those strata of affect (sex-care-attention) that have entered ‘into perfect symbiosis with the bourgeois nuclear family that capitalism converted into the dominant reproductive ideal’ (35).

  1. Our journeys across the city…have led us to abandon the modes of enunciation that speak of each of these functions as separate and to think…from the point of view of a communicative continuum sex-attention-care.

Given the historical stratification of these affects it is not hard to see why, for Precarias, they belong to one and the same continuum, to the same historically formative process (and all the better to emphasize “the elements of continuity that exist under the stratification…in concrete and everyday practices”). However, Precarias also give another justification for their understanding of these stratified-gendered affects: their ‘journeys across the city’ and placing their ‘precaritized everyday lives’ under close examination. And what is discovered is that it not solely the work of history that certain affects have become seemingly natural attributes of particular subjects. In addition, what is discovered is the increasing complexity by which this historical stratification is carried out. Hence, “a continuum because…the traditional fixed positions of women (and of genders in general) are becoming more mobile, and at the same time new positions are created. The whore is no longer just and only a whore…the sainted mother is no longer such a saint nor only a mother.” For Precarias a la Deriva, the stratifications of affect proper to the present cannot and should not be understood in light of its previous iterations (i.e. via mere substitution as in the Enlightenments replacement of theological doctrine with secular law). Today, the stratified (re)production and (re)alignment of social functions such as sex, care, and attention can only be understood on the basis of their increasing ‘mobility’ or ‘diversification.’ But what is exactly mobile and diverse about the contemporary gender division of labour? The present stratification of affect is

  • diverse due to the increasing variants of the classical ‘sexual contract.’ This ranges from traditional matrimony and sex-work (prostitution) to the renting out of women as surrogate mothers, to the well known phenomena of spouses for hire (‘mail order brides’). And with this transformation in the sexual contract (i.e. the social relations that regulate sex, sexuality, and reproduction) follows a transformation of the model of the Fordist nuclear family (‘and the proliferation of other modality of unity…monoparental or plurinuclear homes, transnational families, groups constituted by non-blood bonds…’).

[and]

  • mobile insofar as what once was accomplished in the home is now outstripped and accomplished by the market (“many of the tasks that were previously conducted in the home now are resolved in the market”) – e.g. fast food/ready meals, which accomplish a mother’s daily task of meal preparations, or  middle-, upper-middle class, and wealthy (white) women (residing in the global north) are relieved of their duties of childcare by hiring women from the global south to carry out what once were her traditional roles of caring- and domestic-labour, and so on.

In the end, Precarias are right to emphasize the novelty of this novel stratification-(re)articulation of the gender division of labour, since this stratification is a process whose outcome is the condemnation of more and more individuals to live under conditions of an ever deepening uncertainty. And just as the increased variations of the sexual contract corresponds to a crisis of the traditional nuclear family, so too does the ‘externalization of the home’ correspond to, what Precarias call, ‘a crisis of care’ – and a crisis that begins with the decline of the Welfare State. So, along with the ‘crises’ (or transformations) in the forms of familial and domestic labour, there exists a corresponding transformation in the very ‘physiognomy’ of precarious labour and realizes itself the now common phenomena of one’s “lack of time, resources, recognition, and desire for taking charge of nonremunerated care.”Moreover, says Precarias, these crises – of the family, domestic labour, and of lack – are circumscribed by a fourth and final problem: “In last place, we have urban question: the crisis (and destruction) of worker neighborhood and their strong sense of community has given place to a process of privatization of public spaces.”

  1. Care, with its ecological logic, opposes the security logic reigning in the precaritized world

Now, just as this socio-economic stratification of the sex-care-attention continuum as ‘capitalist axiomatic’ (i.e.all degrees of difference along the continuum are convertible into value) the contemporary norm of governance on the part of nation-States is that of a ‘macropolitics of security,’ which realizes itself in the ‘micropolitics of fear.’ For Precarias, it is in light of the logics of security and fear that govern everyday life that precarity finds its other meaning:

In this context of uncertainty…precarity is not only a characteristic of the poorest workers. Today we can speak of a precarization of existence in order to refer to a tendency that traverses all of society…Precarity functions as a blackmail, because we are susceptible to losing our jobs tomorrow even though we have indefinite contracts, because hiring, mortgages, and prices in general go up but our wages don’t. (‘A Very Careful Strike,’ 39)

Thus we have a dual-process where the ‘externalization of the home’ is coupled to what we can call the ‘externalization (or generalization) of precarity.’ In other words, if Precarias are right to conceive of precarity as a general tendency of society, it is because precarity is a process that continuously produces ever greater conditions of uncertainty for a greater number of workers; particularly with respect to their lives as conditioned by the demands of (re)production. Thus the question naturally comes about: what to do in situations such as this one? how to go on living when “we don’t know who will care for us tomorrow”? Precarias a la Deriva propose a project of “recuperating and reformulating the feminist proposal for a logic of care. A care that…in place of containment, it seeks the sustainability of life and, in place of fear…bases itself on cooperation, interdependence, the gift, and social ecology.” And in order to implement such a project, Precarias provide us with four key principles for organization and collective struggle: affective virtuosity (attempt to break the racialized and gendered sex-care-attention continuum and view each affect as an essential and creative aspect of life as a whole), interdependence (mutual aid according to the logic of the gift), transversality (refutation of any fixed and clear distinction between labour- and leisure-time), and everydayness (local instantiation of care as a form of social organization). Without distracting ourselves from the exigency of precarious life, it is helpful to highlight the fact that Precarias a la Deriva’s list of principles adopts one of Guattari’s key terms: transversality or what he sometimes calls ‘transversal connections.’ And so it is no surprise that for both Precarias and Guattari the category of transversality fundamentally means the (collective) development of ‘a political struggle on all fronts.’ Alternatively, we could use the language of Guattari and define transversality as a concrete rule for effectuating abstract revolutionary machines of desire and whose function is the coordination of various struggles taking place across the Full Body of Capital. In other words:

There is not one specific battle to be fought by workers in the factories, another by patients in the hospitals, yet another by students in the universities. As became obvious in `68, the problem of the university is not just that of the students and the teachers, but the problem of society as a whole and of how it seems the transmission of knowledge, the training of skilled workers, the desires of the mass of the people, the needs of industry and so on…[So] this dichotomy between social reproduction and the production of desire must be a target of the revolutionary struggle wherever…repression works against women, children, drug-addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, or any other disadvantaged group. (Guattari, ‘Molecular Revolution and Class Struggle’)

  1. In the present, one of the fundamental biopolitical challenges consists in inventing a critique of the current organization of sex, attention, and care and a practice that, starting from those as elements inside a continuum, recombines them in order to produce new more liberatory and cooperative forms of affect, that places care in the center but without separating it from sex nor from communication.

Why is the transformation of the current order of sex-attention-care seen as a ‘biopolitical’ challenge? And what would it mean to “place” care at its center? The social transformation of situations of precarity into the means for collective emancipation is biopolitical to the extent that it emphasizes the the conditions by which every day life under capital perpetuates and sustains itself; these conditions that, with the aid of mechanisms of control, surveillance, and repression, make life ever more consistent with market demands. Thus, it is because Precarias see the task of social transformation as being waged in sites of (waged and/or unwaged) reproductive labour that ‘placing care at the center’ becomes imperative. And it is care, says Precarias, is actually the emancipatory underside to understanding what reproductive labour could become. What Precarias will go on to call a ‘careful strike’ envisions a coordinated diversity of struggles centering on sites of reproduction and organized so that those who have been historically tasked with society’s extra-socially necessary labour time can refuse to satisfy their social function without the threat of incurring some penalty, be it material, legal, social, or otherwise. As Precarias eloquently write,

[T]he strike appears to us as an everyday and multiple practice…there will be those who propose transforming public space…those who suggest organizing work stoppage in the hospital when the work conditions don’t allow the nurses to take care of themselves as they deserve, those who decide to turn off their alarm clocks, call in sick and give herself a day off as a present, and those who prefer to join others in order to say “that’s enough” to the clients that refuse to wear condoms… there will be those who oppose the deportation of miners from the “refuge” centers where they work, those dare – like the March 11th Victims’ Association (la asociación de afectados 11M) – to bring care to political debate proposing measures and refusing utilizations of the situation by political parties, those who throw the apron out the window and ask why so much cleaning? And those who join forces in order to demand that they be cared for as quadriplegics and not as “poor things” to be pitied, as people without economic resources and not as stupid people, as immigrants without papers and not as potential delinquents, as autonomous persons and not as institutionalized dependents…Because care is not a domestic question but rather a public matter and generator of conflict. (43)  

5. Utopia & una huelga de mucho cuidado

The caring strike: the means for collective struggle centered on questions historically seen as irrelevant – and precisely to the extent that they were the very conditions of possibility for the ‘relevant’ issues to be addressed. The caring strike: identifying as one’s own the problem of discovering the means of acting in concert with different and perhaps distant movements (e.g. the recent wave of teachers strikes throughout the United States, the development of the ‘social’ strike and what Precarias/Guattari would see as its transversal set of relations incarnated in their platform  – though in its current form, however, these transversal relations largely exist within Western, and to a lesser extent Eastern, European countries). The caring strike: putting an end to one’s participation in a labour, which makes us strangers to one another, and is especially addressed “to the men – “are we going to end with the mystique that obliges women to care for others even at the cost of themselves and obliges men to be incapable of caring for themselves? Or are we going to cease to be sad men and women and begin to degenerate the imposed attributions of gender?”

The caring strike, then. For it is not only men, or capital and the various human forms it takes (bankers, presidents, police officers), who dream of kingdoms. Like all exhausted people, precarious workers imagine utopias of rest.     

 

 

 

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On the End of History & the Death of Desire (Notes on Time and Negativity in Bataille’s ‘Lettre á X.’)

 

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To continue from our conclusions regarding the question of what it would mean to love as a communist, we begin from the idea that abolition is what necessary binds communism as real movement to problems encountered in the life of desire, of the heart, of the family. And one key consequence of this would be the following: if communism, as the real movement that abolishes both itself and the present state of things, is what allows us to truly pose questions pertaining to sex, love, and family life, then the political and the libidinal, which have been historically treated as two distinct phenomena, are now revealed as inseparable and necessarily bound to each other. Thus, and as we will see Bataille write in response to Kojève, ours is a time wherein Desire’s libidinal activity can no longer be thought of, and even more so understood, as independent of the economic ‘base’ of the capitalist mode of production. So, if last time we saw that questions of sex and love are revealed to be inherently socio-historical and not merely personal and private, then the very notion of desire is given a new, and hopefully truer, meaning. Moreover, this new understanding of the life of desire also brings about a shift in our theoretical and practical perspective – from a position that has been comfortable in thinking desire as solely belonging to pertaining to private (as opposed to public) life to a view that finds it impossible to think through problems of libidinal life independent of their socio-political and material determination.

Given this more nuanced position, however, we are still confronted by the following question: what is the nature of desire in both its libidinal and politico-economic determination? If it is said that, now, Desire’s proper place as the ‘base’ and not ‘superstructure’, what, then, does this mean about Desire and its subjects? What kind of subjectivity is as political as it is libidinal such that it is simultaneously constituted by, while expressing itself through, the very forces and relations of production? This is to ask, in another way, about the meaning of a desire that is inherently irreducible to fantasy, dreams, or the physical act of sex?

Bataille & Kojève: A Meeting At The End of History

What is the nature of a desire that is both sexual and political; a desire that is at once psychic and socio-historical? On way of approaching the question of the sexual/psychic and political/socio-historical features of desire is that of Bataille; and particularly his treatment of desire in ‘Lettre á X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel…’, a letter written to Kojeve in light of his seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Sorbonne. While Bataille’s letter does not treat the question of libidinal economy explicitly, he does take up the question of desire as it is linked to negativity, and what a desire with negativity at its heart would mean for the very notion of negation/negativity as such. And it is this treatment of desire’s inherent negativity that is instructive for our purposes since the abolition that binds communism to problems of sex, love, and gender is a relation that has negation at its center.:

In truth its no longer a matter of misfortune or life, only what has become of “negativity out of work”, if it is true that it does become something. I am there in the forms which it engenders, forms not at the outset in myself but in others. Most often negativity without power becomes the work of art…In what concerns me, the negativity which belongs to me didn’t give up work until that moment when there wasn’t any work: the negativity of a man who has nothing more to do, not that of a man who prefers to talk. But the fact – which seems incontestable – that a negativity turned away from action would express itself as work of art is no less charged with meaning given the possibilities remaining to me. It shows that negativity can be objectified […] the man of “negativity out of work”… He is in front of his own negativity as if before a wall. Whatever ill he suffers from this, our man knows that henceforth nothing can be avoided, for negativity has no issue. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 49) 

The task, then, is to see whether or not Bataille has good reason to posit a relation between desire, negativity, and the fact that to love as a communist means to love via the real movement of abolition.

The Economy of Abolition; The Economy of Desire

If Bataille shows that the problem of interpreting Hegel’s claim to an ‘end of history’ is not resolved with Kojève’s call for the ‘re-animalization of Man.’ Rather, if there is an ‘end of history’ it is a riddle solved in the attempt to delineate a different kind of negativity; one no longer tied to a notion of a productive activity that progressively attains its historical telos. Contra Kojeve, what the end of history forces us to think is a negativity no longer characterized as laborious. The negativity of desire, at the end of history, has exhausted itself of all productivity and is thus left with nothing to do. As Bataille writes regarding this non-productive negativity of desire:  

If the act (the “doing of things”) is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question then arises as to whether the negativity of one who has “nothing more to do” disappears or is subsumed under “negativity out of work” [négativité sans emploi]. Personally I can only decide on the one sense, my own being exactly this “negativity out of work” (I could not define myself better). I wish Hegel had foreseen that possibility: at least didn’t he put it at the outcome of the process he described. I imagine that my life – or its miscarriage, better still, the open wound my life is – this alone constitutes the refutation of Hegel’s closed system. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 48)  

Desire as negativity without work is nothing but its unemployment. If the essence of desire is this unemployed negativity, then we are confronted with the paradox of imaging a desire whose particular products and effects are generated through non-productive means; a negativity that can only live and create by means other than that of a life lived according to the dictates of labor. But why does Bataille maintain that, at the end of history, Desire continues to be productive in spite of the fact that Desire can no longer continue to be the labor of negativity?

As the editors of Bataille’s letter helpfully clarify: “Bataille thinks this question [negativity] through by discussing what he terms expenditure. Expenditure may be either productive…or unproductive [and] … it is to this second sense of expenditure that Bataille reserves the term ‘expenditure’ sans phrase” (‘Lettre á X.,’ 47). It is for these reasons that Bataille will maintain that the end of history force’s Desire to undergo a substantial transformation: the labor of the negative, and this negativity as productive activity, do not persist at history’s end (and for Bataille this also means that if the labor of the negative was the motor of desire it was only because of historical and contingent factors). At the end of History, humanity isn’t forced to re-naturalize itself into what is animal (a la Kojève). Rather, we are forced to find ways to live the new found life of negativity, obliged to live a life no longer tied to labor or productive activity. With Bataille, it is as if the fate of humanity was to eventually see itself in a new light; as if, history was simply the first act in humanity’s reckoning with itself as a negativity now unemployed; as if what is instantiated is a form of subjectivity whose very possibility for existing is now constituted by the simple fact that it has ‘nothing more to do;’ at History’s end, then, the only thing we are left with is Time.

After History, Time

Now, with Bataille’s interpretation of the real and Subjective consequences brought about by the ‘end of History’ two things are clear. First, we are able to understand that there exists the persistence of negativity after History; even if negativity will persist in an altogether different form and be of a different nature. Second, and this is what will become important for this section, the unemployed negativity of desire may have been born at History’s closure but its life is lived in a world where there is ‘nothing but Time.’ So it seems that just as negativity persists after History, Time, too, continues on after History’s closure. Thus it is this question of the Time that emerges at the end of History that is at issue since, it is our intuition that the negativity of non-productive expenditure does not simply belong to a world where there is nothing but Time. What is more, this negativity will be said to have its own form of Time proper to itself (and the least we can say is that, for Bataille, Time and History are said to exist independent of each other, since it is the only way by which History can be resolved while Time presses onward). However, if these two consequences that follow from Bataille’s position are of any significance it is due to the fact that, when taken together, we begin to understand that the end of History doesn’t not mean the absolute exhaustion of Being and rather that Time and negativity persist beyond History (and we should add to this that they accomplish this only on the condition that they are constituted by a new relation, which determines and guarantees their mutual persistence).

Putting aside, for the moment, other possible consequences we may draw from the contents of this letter, we can at the very least say that the implicit but crucial thesis of Bataille’s letter is that of the ontological independence of Time and negativity from History. That is, if Time is said to be what determines non-productivity as the form Desire must take, it is only because the Desire, which comes at the end of History is the one that finds itself with “nothing left to do.” This persistence of negativity, that is to say, of Desire, is forced to confront itself by virtue of its post-Historical circumstance as a form of Desire that has at its disposal, and when aiming to secure its persistence after History post-Historical existence, nothing other than Time. To be sure, at the end of History Desire does in fact die even though it is made to be reborn in the persistence of this unemployed negativity.

And if we were to inquire deeper into just what exactly this time of unemployed negativity could be, we quickly finds ourselves returning to Marx; for it was Marx who already gave unemployed negativity a name when, in the Grundrisse, he spoke of disposable-time as a form of time that is irreducible to capital’s division between labor- and leisure-time (where the real difference is between waged and unwaged labor). Moreover, says Marx, disposable-time reveals itself to be the real meaning of wealth since it implies the development of the capacities, knowledges, and well-being of society as a whole: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time‘ (Grundrisse, tr. Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, 708). And lastly, we saw that disposable-time as the time of communism also made possible attempted resolutions to questions/problems of sex, gender, and love since those relations can be created and recreated without the threat to the material- and/or social well-being of those involved. Loving takes time, or at the very least learning to love takes time and it is an education the temporality of which must be disposable.