By McKenzie Wark
The Invisible Committee quite possibly lifted their name from a book by the Belgian Surrealist Marcel Mariën, Theory of Immediate World Revolution, from 1958. It proposed a sort of spectral Leninism based on the contemporary organizing principle of the advertising agency, called the Imaginary Party. Mariën was an often unacknowledged influence on Guy Debord and the Situationist International, which also lurks in the background of Invisible Committee style, which one might think of as a kind of negative presence in the spectacle.
The most recent text to appear in translation, Now (Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2017) certainly has rhetorical flourishes that descend from this connection: “We live in a world that has established itself beyond justification.” (9) Is basically what Debord has to say about what he calls the integrated spectacle of the seventies. These days one might call it rather the spectacle of disintegration.
The text begins with a critical devaluation of an already devalued language. “Having become an instrument of communication, language is no longer its own reality…” (10) And “The exchange value of language has fallen to zero.” (11) Against which it asserts as the sole criteria for truth moments of spontaneous, immediate action: “Truth is a complete presence to oneself and to the world, a vital contact with the real, an acute perception of the givens of existence.” (12)
Elsewhere, I’ve been critical of this aspect of Invisible Committee texts. There’s a very thin line between the lionizing of anarchist and fascist direct action, particularly when it’s kinds that are often the province of young men. This note is muted in Now, but still present: “In the riot there is an incandescent presence to oneself and to others, a lucid fraternity which the Republic is quite incapable of generating.” (14) And: “The riot is desirable as a moment of truth.” (14)
Now takes forward the critique of the whole as the false that is a key note in Debord. The institutional structures that mediate between the totality and particular situations are now seen to be falling apart of their own accord. “[T]he world is fragmenting” (19), “hegemony is dead.” (22) “[T]he states can no longer maintain themselves except in the form of holograms.” (25) As in the late Paul Virilio, there is only civil war. And yet “each fragment carries its own possibility of perfection.” (23)
In a striking phrase: “there will be no common salvation.” (27) Now abandons any sense that the negation of this false totality will be, in the end, the true one. There is no just law to replace the unjust ones. It is “the time of the abolition of the Law.” (36)
Key to this doctrine is the abandoning of Marx’s figure of the working class as bearer, if not of a new universality, then of a condition that is abstract and generalizable. Under the gale force of capital’s dynamism, all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, but the possibility thus emerges of a way of being and acting in the world that is no longer the arbitrary result of a particular inheritance. Rather, all there is in Now are “singular forms of life.” (41)
For Marx, capital is a becoming-abstract of social labor which is yet constrained by the particulars of capitalist exploitation. It has only to burst through this fetter to realize an even higher form of abstraction which, in a dialectical twist, returns social labor to a new relation to the earth. Or so at least some who followed through on this aspect of Marx such as Alexander Bogdanov might have thought.
Curiously, Now abandons the historical tendency to abstraction but retains a commitment to novelty, and in that sense the text remains modern, perhaps more modern than it knows. It is all about “new collective realities, new constructions, new encounters, new thoughts, new customs, new arrivals in every sense” (44) This sits oddly with occasional gestures toward indigenous forms of life.
Communism is a “return to the earth.” (45) And: “Realizing the promise of communism contained in the world’s fragmentation demands a gesture, a gesture to be performed over and over again, a gesture that is life itself: that of creating pathways between the fragments.” (45) ‘Life’ comes up a lot, and there’s a quaint vitalism that underlies the whole text, one knowable only to poets.
The one hierarchy that remains in place here is that of activist and poetic forms of knowledge practice over all others. The kind of activism valorized is itself a kind of poetry of the streets, so in a sense these two forms of knowledge are the same. What makes the text more of the same boring old thing is this will to power, this desire that poetry should be made by all and made in the streets, as a sovereign form. What remains unthinkable is that different forms of knowing and acting might have comradely relations, that there might be cooperative labor across the differences between ways of knowing and acting. Now is a comradeship only of friends in sameness.
One sees this in the media-theory-for-kids section, which seems to come from watching old episodes of Black Mirror. It gestures to infrastructure but doesn’t really know much about it. (On which see instead, this.) And we get some quaint gestures to “cybernetics” again. (47) Which would make the ghost of Norbert Weiner happy. Frankly, any political theory that does not know who Claude Shannon was and why he matters has not yet left the mid-20thcentury.
Here’s a provocation: does French political thought still have anything to teach the world, or has it become provincial? Is the fate for second tier states in the over-developed world just not something of general interest? Let alone the political thought it generated? Now almost concedes this, in the remark that perhaps Foucault is a bit too French. (52)
And in the casual use of the adjective ‘serial’ for a kind of crowd, one might wonder if Sartre still casts a huge shadow even over those who thought they had done with him. The myth of the incalculable revolt hangs over a lot of postwar French political thinking, crystalized in Sartre’s theory of the fused group. (The interesting exception on the left here is Debord, whose Game of War is meant to operate in its fog, but does not treat revolutionary action as incalculable or ineffable).
Now repeats the critique of the model of the general assembly, which gets a more positive spin in Judith Butler. Butler’s attention to the variability and vulberability of bodies makes a useful counterpoint to the robust and maybe somewhat masculinist health and vitalism here. Both suffer from a privileging of the living over the dead, in the sense that infrastructure – those sedimentary layers and deposits of dead labor, is barely thinkable.
One has to concede that Now is right about the narcissism of general assemblies. However, when I conduced my own psychogeography of Zuccotti Park in 2011, I found the space contained four kinds of activities. The general assembly at one end, and at the other pole, the drum circle. At right angles to that axis: the area of services, such as food and power and at the other end of that axis, art. When the police showed up, everybody mobilized, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The lesson might be the equality and comradely connection between these forms rather than the sovereignty of the poetics of direct action.
There’s a somewhat alarming passage on Richard Durn, who killed people at a town council meeting in Nanterre in 2002. On this, Now can be contrasted with Bernard Stiegler, who talks about the same event in terms of the collapse of the long loops of connection across time, in favor of various technically enabled short circuits. But he would want to replace our eroding institutions with forms on a far bigger scale than Invisible Committee.
I thought it was promising that the text started to question the givenness of ‘politics’ as a category. But this didn’t go far. Politics ends up being defined as conflict between forms of life. It draws, as does Chantal Mouffe, on Carl Schmitt’s basically Nazi political thought, which makes the friend-enemy distinction the basis of politics as a distinct and sovereign realm. That partisans of such different politics all find Schmitt congenial ought to give is pause.
“The whole vocabulary of economics is basically a vocabulary of avoided war.” (107) I always thought Johan Huizinga had a good answer to this model of politics as the coming together of friends around a shared substance and in a fight to the death against an enemy. The essential form of praxis for him is not war but play, and he sees all institutional forms, including war, as having crystalized out of play. Play removes from antagonism the necessity for the fight to the death, and leaves the loser alive to recognize the victor. After all, what is the point of victory without the recognition of the loser? The Greeks knew this. It is we moderns who forgot.
Huizinga is one of the sources of Situationist thought that has dropped out of the picture here, and more’s the pity. It would be a way of thinking about how forms of life come into conflict, but also how they modify and develop out of non-lethal and non-violent play. Huizinga was interested in institutions, but the Invisible Committee seems hostile to any form bigger scale than a bake sale.
They want forms, but not forms that scale. “Everything that lives is only forms and interactions of forms.” (70) Emphasis here on lives. There’s a strict hierarchy of living over dead labor. In a charming flourish, institutions are blamed on “that lunatic Calvin.” (71) It is amusing to me that from Invisible Committee to Bruno Latour, there’s a strand of French thought that can’t get over a residual hostility to us protestants! And wasn’t Calvin right, at least in the role he is assigned here, in doubting the probity of the living, doubting their ability to sustain this sparkling poetics of right-action for long?
“[W]hat the institution promises is that a single thing, in this lower world, will have transcended time.” (72) As Harold Innisput is so well: there are infrastructures (he would have said media) that are time-bindingand there are those that are space-binding. From telegraphy to telephone to television to the internet, the world end up awash in space-binding forms. But maybe time-binding ones, institutions, have become impoverished and are under attack. Maybe the fragmented world calls for more rather than less time-binding. Particularly now that political time has collapsed into geological time. Collective planetary human social activity and changed geological time, which is measured in multiples of millennia.
Now is suspicious of the “perverse dialectic between institutions and movements.” (75) It sees only that institutions absorb and defuse movements. That would seem to me in itself an argument for not dismissing the utility of institutions lightly. But then I am an institutional person. My political education as a young militant was in the hands of comrades who ran things, mostly unions. And let me add that they had much more efficient ways of running meetings than general assemblies.
Rather than institutions, a destitution, a politics of escape and of disappointment. A refusal of historical time, the concept of a project, in favor of “vital joy.” (80) Alexandre Kojeve was probably right to imagine that Hegel had inserted God, in the form of the absolute, into historical time as goal and destiny. But my question would be: is collective human action possible at all without some version of this faith? In an era in which geological time has in any case foreclosed many of the more optimistic trajectories for historical time, what kind of history is still possible?
There is no project in Now, other than to “make ourselves ungovernable” (81) One has to wonder about the strategic wisdom of this. Elsewhere, Now notes that the ruling class are anarchists. (38) They do their best to escape and evade – dare I say to destitute – any institutional form that might hold them. This includes those institutions that are residues of past counter-hegemonic struggles, not just by labor movements, but also by environmental action, and so on.
There lies the whole history of the dialectic between movements and institutions. To whose advantage is it to destitute these institutions, then? The people, or the ruling class? Certainly, the ruling class seems to rely more and more on the institutions of police and prison. But is this not made possible by the destitution of all other institutions by the ruling class?
“The function of policing… is to make sure that the desired order appears to reign.” (116) And: “Maintaining order is the main activity of an order that has already failed.” (113) But who caused it to fail? That isn’t asked. But the police are not the opponent, and Now is critical of that strain of anarchism that can think of nothing better to do that get beat up by cops.
Both state and capital appear as absolutes, lacking internal difference. “[C]apital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence” (84) The unacknowledged source for this concept is Lukacs’ writings of the nineteen-twenties. And like him they insist on the political character of the economy. These gestures are never reciprocal. The political is to be found everywhere, but nothing else is ever found within the political.
Just speaking for myself, I no longer find it useful to treat capital as an eternal essence, which only changes in appearances. What if this was not capitalism any more but something worse? What if another mode of production was now grafted on top of capitalism in the way it is grafted on top of the system of ground rent and commodified agriculture? What if this new mode of production was based on the relatively new technics of information (thank you, Claude Shannon)? What if it was based on asymmetries of information and the extraction of surplus information from the body, regardless of whether that body was formally in a workplace or not? But to even ask such questions would be to re-open historical thought, which for the Invisible Committee must remain closed.
One thing this additional mode of production seems to generate as a kind of class location is what Now calls the crevard, or needy opportunist. Here I’d follow hip-hop usage and call this a class of hustlers. Those without formal work, precariously juggling gigs and side-hustles. All manageable through digital infrastructures. It results in part from a “universal expansion of measurement.” (98) And “[t]he logic of value now coincides with organized life.” (101) Although perhaps we should not underestimate how much this kind of exploitation requires and generates its own poetics as well. Black Mirror might be less a critique of it than its realism and justification.
Now bets in the end, on the non-quantifiable as sovereign. “Ultimately, the real is incalculable, unmanageable.” (106) Well, of course, as Bogdanov would say, you make a worldview by substituting into the domains of which you know nothing metaphors based on experiences from your own social activity. To the autonomist activist, everything looks like autonomist action.
Now retrieves communism from the Marxists, pointing out that Lenin borrowed it from anarchists as an alternative to a concept of socialism compromised by social democrats when war broke out in 1914. As a non-Leninist Marxist I’m thankful for the reminder, but there’s more connection between Bolshevism and anarchism than that, and there’s a lot there to remind us that the valuing of voluntarist action is shared between them.
“Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things.” (98) This is a minor détournement of phrase from The German Ideology: “We call communism the real movement that abolishes the existing state of things.” Rather than the triumph of the social over bourgeois individualism, it will be a matter of passages between forms of life that are neither. “We only have the choice between two crimes: taking part in it or deserting it…” (129) This is I think a really enabling thought, even if it does not really provide a decision between one crime and another.