Bernard E. Harcourt | The Space of Praxis | An Introduction

By Bernard E. Harcourt


“The only scientific thing to do is revolt! Movements, not just individuals, are critical. […] Revolt! Think we must; we must think. Actually think, not like Eichmann the Thoughtless. Of course, the devil is in the details—how to revolt? How to matter and not just want to matter?”

— Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

We arrive at the final session of Praxis 13/13 having explored a wide range of modalities of contemporary critical practice, from the Left Populism of Chantal Mouffe and (perhaps) Bernie Sanders, theories of assembly with Judith Butler, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, and the idea of “the common,” to the radical anarchist separatism of the Invisible Committee in France and the explosive “Undercommons” of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, to Frankfurt School praxis with Martin Saar, death fasts, self-immolation, and the weaponization of life with Banu Bargu, and Bruno Latour’s urgent invitation to address global climate change. We have, over the course of the 2018-2019 year, surveyed the field of contemporary critical practice—what we might call “the space of praxis.” It is now time to reflect on that space.

For our final session, we had originally planned to focus on one last set of praxis readings that include Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1985) and Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot (2016). Those critical texts develop two other important directions in contemporary practice: first, the creation of autonomous zones such as, most recently in the news, the “zone à défendre” (ZAD) at Notre-Dame-des-Landes outside of Nantes, France, which involved a decades-long peaceful occupation of lands with a political and environmental agenda, originally opposed to the enlargement of the Nantes airport; and second, the increasing practice of riots and looting as forms of uprising tied to our current political-economic condition of neoliberal consumption capitalism. Both of these texts—to which I will come back to in a moment—are essential building blocks in the effort to map the space of praxis.

But rather than end on a close reading of these texts, we have invited three extraordinary critical theorists—the philosopher Amy Allen, the war reporter and Berlin performer Carolin Emcke, and the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Heather Thompson—to reflect more broadly on this “space of praxis” today—from the perspective of critical philosophy, critical practice, and critical history. In the process, I would like to suggest or intimate, we may actually imagine the space of praxis itself as a “zone à défendre.” More of that in a minute.

Autonomous Zones and Riots

Let me turn first, for a moment here though, to those ZADs and TAZs. Hakim Bey offers a seductive, poetic vision of anarchist separatism in his writings on temporary autonomous zones. His is a romantic vision drawing on the imagination of the pirate alcove, the explorers gone native, the artists in the limit experience. Bey embraces the fugitive, the deviant in all manners. The vision Bey offers is a creature of our post-revolutionary moment—of the lapse in that “modern conception of revolution” that we discussed in conversation with the writings of Reinhardt Koselleck. The revolutionary ideal, Bey warns us, is behind us—a thing of the past. What lies ahead are uprisings and insurrections. His poetics are strident: “realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution’ but also that we give up wanting it. ‘Uprising,’ yes—as often as possible and even at the risk of violence.” (99-100) Bey explains the appeal of the uprising: “The concept of the TAZ arises first out of a critique of Revolution, and an appreciation of the Insurrection. The former labels the latter a failure; but for us uprising represents a far more interesting possibility, from the standard of a psychology of liberation, than all the “successful” revolutions of bourgeoisie, communists, fascists, etc.” (100)

For Hakim Bey, the TAZ already exists—it has been with us for centuries, and is here with us today. We are in it now, at least for the lucky ones among us: “a certain kind of ‘free enclave’ is not only possible in our time but also existent.” (97) It is the experience of Tortuga, the pirate enclave, but also of the explorers who preferred to stay, of early Madagascar, or just the space we have escaped to in order to get away. For Bey, it is the party “where for one brief night a republic of gratified desires was attained.” (132) For one brief night, or for two or three years, Bey notes. (132).

The zone allows us to get outside or beyond the state—without conceding to the state. The relationship is that of having overcome the state, escaped it, and ignored it, and being a step ahead. “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” (99) In the zone, we discover other ways to be fully ourselves, and we withhold judgment. “In the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory,” Bey writes. “If the phrase became current it would be understood without difficulty… understood in action.” (97)

“Understood in action”: that defines, perhaps, the space of praxis, where the practices themselves inform us, guide us, theorize us. There, we are no longer theorizing praxis, praxis theorizes us. There is, in a sense, an autonomy of praxis.

That autonomy is central to Joshua Clover’s intervention in Riot. Strike. Riot. In conversation with Joshua Clover, I proposed to him that his book could be interpreted as advocating the autonomy of praxis—to which he responded, instead, that it more likely represented the autonomy of theory. Praxis goes on, no matter our theorizing. It is the theorizing that is almost autonomous—and in that sense, perhaps, irrelevant to the ongoing praxis. Critical theory is so immanent, it is almost outside the space of praxis. As Clover writes in his introduction: “Theory is immanent in struggle; often enough it must hurry to catch up to a reality that lurches ahead.” (3)

In his work, Clover traces a parallel history of praxis and political economy—a history in which modalities of uprising are shaped by economic conditions and evolve as a result of the necessary evolution of economic history. Clover offers a three-part story: during the medieval and early modern period, marked by an economy of circulation of goods, forms of uprising are dominated by the mob riot, the form of uprising described and theorized through the lens of moral economy by the English historian, E. P. Thompson. Early capitalism and the Industrial Revolution bring about an economy of production that is accompanied by labor movements, syndicalism, and the modality of the strike as the dominant form of struggle against capitalism. With the neoliberal turn in the 1970s and the transformation of the advanced capitalist economy into a service economy dominated once again by the circulation of goods, revolt turns to a new form of riot, what Clover calls “riot prime,” that involves urban youth attacking the commercial symbols of consumption. These are the London riots of 2005, the émeutesof the French banlieusin the late aughts, and the rioting in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere in the United States. They are the direct product of the crises of capitalism at the turn of this century: “crisis signals a shift of capital’s center of gravity into circulation, both theoretically and practically, and riot is in the last instance to be understood as a circulation struggle, of which the price-setting struggle and the surplus rebellion are distinct, if related, forms,” Clover emphasizes. (129)

The historical trajectory that Clover describes, then, is directly reflected in the title of his book, Riot. Strike. Riot: “Riots” during the medieval and early modern period of a circulatory economy, “Strikes” throughout capitalism, and now the “Riot prime” in our age of post-industrial neoliberal capitalism. What is important in his thesis is that the economic dimension drives the praxis: forms of uprising are determined by economic conditions and evolve regardless of human intervention—or critical theory. We face a distinct future of praxis, regardless of theory. “The riot, the blockade, the barricade, the occupation. The commune. These are what we will see in the next five, fifteen, forty years. The list is not new.” (175) The space of praxis is, in this sense, autonomous.

Rethinking the Space of Praxis with Amy Allen, Carolin Emcke, and Heather Thompson

Within the framework of these and earlier texts, we will turn in our final session to a broader exploration of this “space of praxis” in conversation with three brilliant critical theorists. We will begin with the philosopher and critical theorist Amy Allen—one of the critical thinkers who has done the most to integrate the Frankfurt School writings with post-colonial, queer, and decolonial critical theory—who will open with a philosophical examination of praxis in conversation with the debate between Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi on capitalism titled “Contesting Capitalism,” and Wendy Brown’s essay, “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom in Twenty-First Century ‘Democracies’” in Critical Times, Volume 1 (2018). Allen will also develop further her ideas about how to think about psychoanalysis as a model for doing social critique—and the implications for critical praxis of taking it as a model—that she began to develop in her 2016 esssay in Constellations, “Psychoanalysis and the Methodology of Critique.”

The author, journalist, performer, and critical theorist, Carolin Emcke, joins us from Berlin and will explore what it means to travel back and forth from the university and philosophy to regions of crises as a war reporter and critical theorist, in order to elaborate “the space of praxis” in terms of what she calls “hidden spaces, restricted spaces, gendered spaces,” as well as “space as contested territory: ethnic cleansing, territory of natives” and “space in a broader sense as visibility: different strategies to make invisible people visible.” Incidentally, Carolin Emcke will also be intervening two days before Praxis 13/13, on May 6, 2019, with Masha Gessen and Edouard Louis, at the “Laws of Desire” panel discussion at the Cooper Union, information here—please join us and RSVP there.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning historian and critical theorist, Heather Thompson, will then discuss the theory and praxis implications surrounding the prison abolition movements today to think through the theory of prison abolition in this moment of such severe prison crises. Heather Thompson has curated for us a number of important readings on prison abolition and prison reform—and how reform itself might perpetuate the crisis—and they are available on-line here. They include work by Angela Davis and a chapter from the report “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences” (2014), by the National Academy of Sciences panel on which Heather Thompson herself sat.

The Praxis ZAD

Looking back on our own critical practices during Praxis 13/13, in light of these final sets of readings and discussions, it may be possible to discern a new way to think about our project. Maybe, in the end, this seminar series Praxis 13/13 is itself a “temporary autonomous zone”: a space of open experimentation with a willingness to reconsider all our ideas and practices, at the limit, against and without the state, in our own way. In this light, we can imagine the space of praxis, just like our earth today, as a space at risk. A space in danger. Perhaps, the two are symbiotically related. They depend on each other. They are both in need of defense—and of radical rethinking.

In her book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway urges us to rethink our present crises and abandon the notion of the Anthropocene, as well as the more properly named Capitalocene, in favor of what she calls the “Chthulucene.” She defines the Chthulucene, with an extra h, as the way to rethink our period through the figure of the spider, Pimoa cthulhu, an eight-legged tentacular arachnid home to Sonoma and Mendocino Counties in California (31). It is, she observes, obscene to place man at the heart of the Anthropocene—as Haraway writes, “Surely such a transformative time on earth must not be named the Anthropocene!” (31) Not just for theoretical reasons, but for practical ones as well. “Both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene lend themselves too readily to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse I hear all around me these days, in both expert and popular discourses, in which both technotheocratic geoengineering fixes and wallowing in despair seem to coinfect any possible common imagination,” she writes (56)

We must, Haraway argues, rethink or better think these categories, in order to practice, and practice better. “We must think!” Haraway urges us. (57) And with that—with thoughts that think thoughts, real thinking, thinking that can lead to action, to revolt, to the right way to revolt—Haraway urges us to act. “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” (57)

Welcome to the final Praxis 13/13, the unfinished Chthulucene, and our own temporary autonomous zone.

Welcome to the “zone à défendre 13/13”!


Special thanks to Molly Rain Kraus for putting Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene in conversation with Hakim Bey’s poetic anarchism.