The Golden Barley School

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(under)commons of affect and the critique of labour: disaffection & affective composition

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‘When we can only confide in each other enough to speak of struggle (communal, abstract, heroic), but not of sadness (aloneness, in this minute…) then we have not done enough, we are not doing enough for each other’s liberation’ – Anwyn Crawford, ‘The politics of sadness’

 ‘What I would like to see emerge is a new approach to politics that doesn’t see “personal” or “interpersonal” problems (mental illness, harassment, violence) as issues best kept to the private sphere, but which regrettably overflow those boundaries and unfortunately interrupt the real business of revolutionaries…This perspective offers me nothing.’ – J, reproduced from personal correspondence

Introduction

The following is an attempt to move beyond the impasse of post-workerist theories of affective labour and the common, and to develop instead a process of affective composition that takes place within an undercommon.[1] Specifically, the underlying problem throughout is that of how we make infrastructures,[2] rather than institutions or networks, of political movement in such a way that we are not required to excise the messiness of our lives from the terrain of politics: our mental health, grief, sadness, illnesses and so on. If there is to be a politics and/of the common, these are as much of it as anything else. And to be sure, there is much in the world to ruin our bodies’ capacities to make relationships that don’t reproduce capital and the gendered, racial, sexual and familial attachments that mark this reproduction. And yet despite this we do make different relationships, and we do so in a way that isn’t just reactive. However, our collective negotiation of these tensions needs more thorough theorisation and work in practice.

In what follows two elements within an affective circuit are developed[3] as one contribution to carrying out such theorisation, and to reflect on some practices: one of disaffection, another as affective composition.

Disaffection can be thought of as a process of refusal arising from our experience of being variable capital and re/productive labour, as well as the forms that our traumas and tensions take, within our bodies and between them. As Alondra Nelson has stated, ‘health is politics by other means’,[4] so within this term is included those questions of our emotional, mental, bodily health. Affective composition, as the second element in a circuit, is the making of ‘other’ relations to those of reproduction, which are created in processes of struggle. This is not to imply a clear separation, rather that our participation in struggle, draws into play our disaffections, as well as allowing us to make new ways of relation. The question then becomes, what infrastructures would allow this to occur, and how might they be made?

The infrastructures through which political movement forms, which draw into play our disaffections as well as compose new relations, what I refer to as a circuit of disaffection and affective composition, is something different to reproduction. If we understand reproduction to be the fundament or axiom of capitalist futurity, then when we succeed in these struggles, we are not involved in reproduction but the formation of different ways of living: against reproduction of the same and for variation, generation and recombination. From this perspective ‘reproduction [is] a specifically capitalist form of foundationalism’.[5]

Affects at work and the rejection of biopolitical auto-commoning

The significance of linking the critique of capital with that of affects can be pointed to most simply in terms of the problem of work. Firstly, an engagement with certain labour processes involved in re/production and circulation involve an affective dimension. This may not warrant the novelty it is accorded in post-workerist thought, particularly given that various forms of ‘affective labour’ have long pre-existed contemporary or post-Fordist work arrangements. Still, there is a need to talk about affect in relation to work specifically across the present conjuncture. More specifically, it is necessary to come to terms with how intimacies and affects are (re)arranged for the reproduction of the normative conditions for the production, circulation and accumulation of  value. This perspective helps us to place affect in a central position for the critique of and struggle against capital.

This leads us to the importance of analysing affect as an element within the technical arrangements of class. In so far as the managerial techniques for the discipline and control of labour increasingly turn to affective discourses and practices in order to integrate labour in the valorisation process, the critique of affects is important. In this latter sense it is possible to argue that today management through affects constitutes an element of the technical composition of class relations. There is an affective dimension to the integration of living labour into valorisation, and there is an affective dimension to proletarian struggle.[6]

It is therefore important to come to terms with the arrangements of intimacy, affects, and how these are gendered, racialised and mobilised in the reproduction of capital today.

It is thus necessary to create a break with the sense of auto-commoning that is produced in many autonomist Marxist and post-workerist theories of affective labour and biopolitical production. This auto-commoning is often said to emerge directly from the labour processes of various post-Fordist forms of work, such as service work, cultural production or care work. This argument tends to valorise existing forms of labour and relationship, rather than carrying out a critique of labour within capitalism. This allows these theorists to avoid a series of the contradictions of intimate/emotional/affective forms of work, and also misarticulates the affective processes involved in developing political composition and struggle. As Federici has argued against the perspective of post-workerism, the alleged common that is internal to labour and external to capital within these labour-processes does not in fact exist in many cases, that ‘in no case is commoning a given, an automatic development immanent in the work itself’.[7] For example, as Emma Dowling has shown, there is nothing inherently commoning within the affective labour of restaurant work.[8] Following this, the idea that it is ‘human sociability as such that is valorised’ in affective labour, is deeply flawed.

Work, Capital, Disaffection

It is against the perspective of affective labour and the auto commons that we need to develop a new perspective on the critique of affect and work. As Angela Mitropoulos has argued, ‘it is not…authentic human sociability that is valorised in affective labour, but the apparently genuine circulation of affect as if it is not work’.[9] Mitropoulos links this perspective with the analyses of emotional labour in Hochschild’s The managed heart: ‘Workers who refuse to perform emotional labour are said to go into robot…Under conditions of speed-up and slowdown, covering up a lack of genuine feeling is no longer considered necessary. Half-heartedness has gone public’.[10] Throughout her analysis and critique of the oikonomia, a concept of the household that functions as a prism in which the reproduction of capital, the distribution of work and surplus are racialised, gendered and ordered along familial and national lines, Mitropoulos goes further than Hochschild in showing how intimacies and affects are mobilised in the valorisation of value.

Mitropoulos speculates that, in a condition of public half-heartedness, ‘perhaps the oikos is haunted not by communism – at least not as it has come to be understood as party, or state or policy – but by disaffection, a detachment from the oikonomic that signals attachments otherwise, and for this reason, barely decipherable by conventional political analyses’.[11] Of importance here are the tensions involved in reproducing the norms of reproduction on one hand, and the desire and actuality of breaking, detaching from these norms on the other, with disaffection as the bodily expression of this tension.

The undercommons of affect and infrastructures for affective composition

The discussion so far does not point to an auto-commoning condition of affective labour, in which a natural sociability and common producing life is expropriated by capital. Rather, what we see when we acknowledge the arrangements of intimacies and affects in the reproduction of capital, and the mobilisation of affect in re/production and circulation, is antagonism and struggle across the forms of these arrangements. Not a cooperative common present at the beginning, middle and end of the production process, expropriated externally by capital as rentier, but terrains of work to be critiqued like all other forms of labour within capitalism.

Rather than this visible common that animates work, it is useful to look instead to an undercommon of affective life. Developing the term from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney,[12] Shukaitis has argued that ‘while the undercommons are from capital’s perspective the unacknowledged self-organization of the despised, discounted, and anti-social, from an autonomous perspective they are something else entirely: the self-organization of the incommensurate. They embody a process of self-organized dis-identification’.[13] With a slightly different inflection, we can point from dis-identification, to disaffection and detachment, with the potential for attachment otherwise and composition. The actuality of our (dis)affective knowledge of the world is incommensurate with the necessities of capitalist reproduction, and is thus scattered throughout an undercommon of affect: our anxieties, joys, sadnesses, illnesses, hopes.

To take a recent example here, we could look to stories from Occupy. We have heard of the ‘resignations from the American Dream’[14] that emerged as a part of the Occupy phenomenon, as well as the re-emergence of occupy infrastructures in the form of #OccupySandy in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.[15] Circulating throughout these examples are relations of disaffection and detachment, as well as the making of infrastructures for relating differently. However, there remains the problem, within these processes, of the potential re-inscription of ‘normal’ standards and forms of living. The homeless question within occupy raised the problem of such a re-inscription.[16] Within this ‘question’, and in keeping with the financialised context in which Occupy emerged, the homeless were considered variously as either an asset or a risk: does the homeless body prove the genuine truth of the camps, or does it detract from the real fight. The question of ‘why are you here’, which arose through the homeless question, with the emphasis on the issue of what one was contributing to the ‘movement’ as the index against which measure was made of politics and the individual, provides this reinscription. Similar issues arose around more explicit questions of mental health.[17] Each of these issues raises the question of how to let the complete complexities of our affective life circulate throughout political composition, and the struggle to resist the reimposition of normative forms, and indeed, how to negotiate these tendencies. The example of Occupy is raised not to condemn it, indeed many infrastructural projects such as the Mindful Occupation[18] reader arose to address these problems, but rather to illustrate the difficulties with which a political manifestation that spreads across such an array of bodies is confronted, when organising across the myriad disaffections from capitalism our bodies express.

This last point brings us to a final question concerning an affective undercommon, again looking into the spaces in between and beyond those that are usually visible and spoken, returning us to the quotes at the beginning of this paper.

Eight years ago, a friend wrote: ‘When we can only confide in each other enough to speak of struggle (communal, abstract, heroic), but not of sadness (aloneness, in this minute…) then we have not done enough, we are not doing enough for each other’s liberation’.[19] Whilst more recently, another friend has written, ‘What I would like to see emerge is a new approach to politics that doesn’t see “personal” or “interpersonal” problems (mental illness, harassment, violence) as issues best kept to the private sphere, but which regrettably overflow those boundaries and unfortunately interrupt the real business of revolutionaries: unionising workplaces.  This perspective offers me nothing.’[20]

The above concerns were expressed within the context of broader conversations about political organisation in Australia and its limitations, eight years apart. I would argue that they express a variation of the problematic outlined in this paper. Perhaps this could be described as a refusal of representation: a rejection of imposed affective performativity, and a desire for an actual affective recomposition. The problem identified in each of the above quotes is that of how the ostensibly ‘political space’ reinscribes norms of affective performativity, a clear delimitation of ‘politics’ and an assumption of the need to keep certain things outside of political organising. Within each perspective, that which is left out is the area of emotion, mental health, illnesses and so on. Moreover, not only is there an assumption to keep a ‘space’ clear, but we struggle to find the ways in which to speak this area of our lives as if it is political. It is with this problem in mind that we need to consider an undercommon of affect. An emphasis on an undercommon of disaffections and composition, challenges us to not excise these areas of our lives, but to move and speak through them, transforming disaffection into a self-organised undercommon.


[1] The ideas developed throughout this paper are drawn largely from Angela Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion: from biopolitics to oikonomia, (Minor Compositions, London: 2012). The term ‘affective composition’ is developed from Jason Read. Read uses this term to indicate the layers, forms and dynamics of relationship and attachment that we make in struggle. Jason Read, ‘The affective composition of labour’, URL: http://www.unemployednegativity.com/2011/05/affective-composition-of-labor.html

[2] Infrastructure is posed rather than institutions or networks, as ‘the answer given to movement and relation’, whilst the infrastructural itself ‘is a question not of who…but of how affinities take shape, or not’. Infrastructure points to the spaces in-between, which allow, or block, affinities and composition. ‘As an answer to the question of movement and relation, infrastructure is the “promiscuous infrastructures” that have sustained the occupations and encampments of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and Oakland. The infra-political builds toilets in homeless encampments in Sacramento; by-passes pre-paid water meters, trickler systems and privatised water piping in Durban; formulates vocabularies of reconfiguration rather than foreclosure and standardisation; delivers health care to noborder protests and undocumented migrants; creates phone apps for evading kettling by police in London; digs tunnels under national boundaries; and more – the infra-political, in other words, revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise.’ Contract and Contagion, pp117; 116; 117.

[3] The term affective circuit is used to name a way to think how different but related forces, those of disaffection and composition, are mutually constituted in our lived experience of the world.

[4] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: the Black Panther Party and the fight against medical discrimination, (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2011).

[5] Contract and Contagion, p28.

[6] The emergence of affect as an element of technical composition of class relations is evident in numerous ways, including but not limited to the following. As part of the general rise of human capital theory, and the work on the self, characteristic of it, management discourse and techniques emphasise the management of labour through the worker’s affects. See for example, Gary Latham, Work Motivation: history theory, research: 2007); Helle Bjerg and Dorthe Staunaes, ‘Self-management through shame: uniting governmentality studies and the affective turn’, in Ephemera, 11:2, 2011. One could also look to the development of Total Quality Management or Organisational and Citizenship Behaviour discourses. On examples of affective technologies and work see Mark Gawne, ‘The modulation and ordering of affect: from emotion recognition technology to the critique of class composition’, in Fibreculture, forthcoming, and Kaima Negishi, ‘Smiling in the post-Fordist affective economy’, in Transformations Journal, 22: 2012

[7] Silvia Federici, ‘On affective labour’, in Michael Peters and Ergin Bulut (eds) Cognitive capitalism, education and digital labour, (Peter Lang Publishing, New York: 2011), p 70.

[8] Emma Dowling, ‘Producing the dining experience: measure, subjectivity and the affective worker’ in Ephemera, 7:1, 2007.

[9] Contract and Contagion, p174

[10] Arlie Hochschild, The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling, (University of California Press, California: 2003), p129. Also cited in Contract and Contagion, p175.

[11] Contract and Contagion, p175

[12] Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, ‘The University and the Undercommons: seven theses’, in Social Text, 22:2, 2004.

[13] Stevphen Shukaitis, ‘The wisdom to make worlds: strategic reality and the art of the undercommons. URL: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0311/shukaitis/en

[14] Marco Roth, ‘Letters of Resignation from the American Dream’, in Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America, (Verso, London: 2011).

[15] Sarah Jaffe, ‘Power to the people: occupy’s afterlife, a dispatch from New York’s dark zones’, in Jacobin Magazine, URL: http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/power-to-the-people/

[16] Christopher Herring and Zoltan Gluck ‘The homeless question’, in Occupy: Scenes from occupied America.

[19] Anwyn Crawford, ‘The politics of sadness’, in Arson Zine, 2004.

[20] Personal correspondence via Australian IWW elist.

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Author: @furiousaffects

wayward wobbly commie

2 thoughts on “(under)commons of affect and the critique of labour: disaffection & affective composition

  1. Reblogged this on Experimental Geographies and commented:
    An absolutely fantastic post by Mark Gawne in which he examines how one might come to compose affective infrastructures that challenge the necessities of capitalist reproduction. Gawne’s post offers a timely rejoinder to post-workerist understandings of affective labour where ‘commoning’ is often understood as a given (see my recent post on Bifo’s The Uprising)

  2. finally read this, thanks m.

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