Communists Must Write: Essays of Disorder.

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some may feel that the republication of these scattered essays is rather an infantile scavenging. The detritus of an obscure journal archive, cobbled together for a bonfire of vanishing prospects, criticism fit for rodents, and flagrant flouting of the injunction to do more than make point form interpretations, all the way down. So far, so good then.

‘A writer is not a productive labourer insofar as writing is about producing an idea, but only to the extent that a profit is made for the publisher’ – Marx. Theories of Surplus Value Vol 1.

Chapter 1 was written for an internal discussion of the politburo of the Nomadic Action Group. 1994

Chapter 2 was written for my students. 1999

Chapter 3 will appear in the journal New Formations. 2012

Chapter 4 appeared in a book edited by David Held and Henrietta Moore. 2007

Chapter 5 appeared in the journal Social Identities. 2005

Chapter 6 appeared in City Visions, ed Bell and Haddour. 2000

Chapter 7 was self published. 2009

Chapter 8 was published in Celebrating Transgression. 2006

Chapter 9 is a random blog post or 5. 2011

Thanks for stopping by.


Chapter 1. Communists Must Write, and how!

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

There are various ways in which the political vacuum which we have so sorely felt in recent years can be countered. The need for a party, its support and discipline, its organisational strengths and sense of purpose has the potential to turn rhetoric into activity. Without doubt we are all well sick of people saying what must be done[1] and having the words carried away in the wind. There has been much conversation among friends, in pubs and elsewhere, in the meetings of our various organisations, at demonstrations and amongst the collectivities of social movements and NIMBY protests, etc., etc., but there is not enough, as yet, to show.

It has also been admitted that among our urgent tasks are the self-educational work of reading groups, writing papers, and the development of a left culture which includes a practical-theoretical analysis of the conditions in which we work. As much has often been stated. Rhetorically!

There are those who may say that communism is verbose, and any set of collected and/or selected works of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya, Leon, Joseph, Mazumdar[2], etc., will show that these communists wrote all the time — letters, tracts, pamphlets, monographs and more. Yes, we may now live in the era of late-night-television capitalism, yes the written word is a privileged form and draws accusations of stylised alienation, rhetorical authority, intellectualism, elitism, theory and that bitter term of abuse, journalism, but, I think, we are still obliged to write. The question I want to pose is how.

As a preliminary step, which we must repeat over and over, we might read some of the many and various communist texts which refer to writing. It is not possible to mention them all, nor desirable — since I think this issue must be kept under discussion all the time, continually renewed. Nevertheless, a few scattered points might offer us something to go on with now. It is important to take these older texts seriously even while agreeing with Guattari and Negri on “the reopening of a revolutionary cycle” which shall proceed “Not by the repetition of old slogans, but through the intervention of new perspectives on action, and by a redefinition of communism as enrichment, diversification of community and consciousness” (Guattari and Negri 1990:28) What follows is a proposal which, while looking to past work, sets out towards writing now.


The contrast between the capitalist media, academic writing and our texts must be continually upheld (this has not been the example of other ‘left’ papers, it is perhaps true of Proper Gander Video, and if we were to devote time to the theory of the circulation of meaning and a possible comment on the role computerised databoards this issue might be more closely focused).

Whatever we produce, our writing cannot afford in any way to be bothered with mimicking the dull styles of academic discussion which we are trained to replicate in the Institutions and schools. So many years of grammar and style are hard to undo, and we are likely to be often criticised by those who might retain more allegiance to proper style than we do, but whatever the case, we must write in a context which includes such obligations towards certain circumscribed styles. Marx, writing on the Paris Commune singled out the writings of academic ‘gentlemen’:

the working class can afford to smile at the course invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with the pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and  sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility (Marx 1871 The Civil War in France)

This is much more than just a critique of the the ‘science’ of the institutions, and everyone is well aware that all writing is marked with the circumstances in which it is situated. Writing and reading are co-constituted together in a variety of highly charged political contexts and along with paying attention to the institutionalised ‘politics’ of academic writing and of the mainstream media, we are also obliged to look at the ways these contexts bare upon our writing. The trace of ‘objectivity’ is still apparent in so much work from the left, especially academic and journalistic work — as if by some agreement with the higher privilege of serious writing we have forgotten the invective and politics of our leaflet and pamphlet styles. I am against non-partisan writing, and can refer to Lenin to support this where he writes: “Down with non-partisan writers. Down with literary supermen. Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat” (Lenin 1905 Party Organisation and Party Literature).

In a way that long anticipates the post-structuralist interest in the political importance of the structures of information dissemination, Lenin wrote in 1905 that:

literature must by all means necessary become an element of … party work … Newspapers must become the organs of the various party organisations, and their writers must by all means become members of these organisations. Publishing and distributing centres, bookshops and reading rooms, libraries and similar establishments — must all come under party control (Lenin 1905 Party Organisation and Party Literature – emphasis added)

Still earlier Lenin had placed the founding of the party newspaper at the beginning of the project of founding a party: “We can and must immediately set about founding the party organ — and, it follows, the Party itself — and putting them on a sound footing” (Lenin 1899 An Urgent Question). In this text Lenin says that discussion and haphazard or eclectic communist work is ‘amateurish’ when it is not all organised in “such a way that it is reflected in its entirety in one common organ” (Lenin 1899). [The whole of What is to be done? takes this up in detail. Lenin offers a deconstruction, or rather demolition, of the arguments of the ‘opportunists’ who opposed the founding of Iskra]. The need for such a ‘common’ forum, of course in no way implies the homogenisation of all communist work into the one mold (as if this would be desirable, possible or meaningful at all). But it does demand organisation and discipline.


In  1942 Mao Tse Tung addressed a Yenan meeting on the topic of ‘Stereotyped Party Writing’ and the role of writing within revolutionary activity. Developing an earlier essay on the Party’s style of work, he presented eight points of criticism against the boring eight part essays of ‘stereotyped party writers’ — using “poison as the antidote to poison” (Mao Selected Works, Vol 3 p.56). His indictments are as follows:

• against the filling of endless pages with verbiage, against the writing of long and empty articles that few if any will read. “We are in the midst of a war, and we should learn how to write shorter and pithier articles” (Mao SW3:56).

• against writing that strikes a pose in order to intimidate people. “Some stereotyped party writing is not only long and empty, but also pretentious” (Mao SW3:57). It is important to explain concepts, and to avoid the patronising attitude that privileges intellectual work over other activities. The difficulty entailed in this at the same time at which educational work is considered of utmost importance must be kept in constant tension.

• against writing that “shoots at random, without considering the audience” (Mao SW3:58). “Some comrades, however, are shooting without a target, shooting at random, and such people are liable to harm our work” (Mao SW3:42). “We must propagate materialism and dialectics” (Mao SW3:49)

• against “drab language … [against writing that is] wizened and ugly … without a shred of vigour or spirit” (Mao SW3:59).

• against complicated sets of headings that do nothing to attend to the problems under discussion,that name rather than analyse. Mao says: “In order to solve a problem it is necessary to make a systematic and thorough investigation and study. This is the process of analysis … and it is needed; otherwise, faced with a chaotic and bewildering mass of phenomena, you will not be able to discern where the problem or contradiction lies” (Mao SW3:61).

• against irresponsible writing which harms people wherever it appears.

• against writing which jeopardizes the revolution. If you have observed little, do not write. If you have nothing useful to say, do not write. Similarly, if there is something to be said, something you have observed, you must write.

• against the poisons of subjectivism and sectarianism, which harms the organisation and the work of people sympathetic to communism. Subjectivism, as described by Mao in a 1942 essay Rectify the Party’s Style of Work, includes a muddled separation of ‘theory and practice’ in which those who constantly talk about this link are the very ones guilty of maintaining the separation. “How is Marxist-Leninist theory to be linked with the practice of the revolution?” Mao asks. If the Marxist-Leninist method of dialectical materialism is “an arrow” to be shot at the target of the revolution, then those people who “stroke the arrow fondly, exclaiming, ‘What a fine arrow! What a fine arrow!’ but never want to shoot it” are the most harmful. “These people are merely connoisseurs of curios and have virtually nothing to do with the revolution” (Mao SW3:42). Sectarianism within the organisation and against cadres of other like-minded organisations is “usually wedded to the doctrine of ‘me first’” (Mao SW3:44) and indicates an individualist pride that does not always help — “After reading a few Marxist books, such comrades become more arrogant instead of more modest, and invariably dismiss others as no good without realizing that in fact their own knowledge is only half-baked” (Mao SW3:48).


What are we to make from these past discussions of communist writing? To begin the process of learning from these and other precursors, a Soviet-Realist analogy might run something like this: just as the tractor and the lathe are a development upon the ox and the anvil we might expect that there is room to develop our communication forms. There is much room for improvement in the communicative practices of the left if we are to promote “training in revolutionary communism” (Communist International 1921 Thesis on Organisation). Among much more exploration and experimentation in media forms — video, databanks, radio — we also need to do something to improve our written work. We need glam texts — there is little question that the publications of contemporary left parties are largely boring and are not as readable as they might be. To the extent that left publications have attempted to become more readable (for example Arena Magazine, and Green Left Weekly) there has been an explicit veering away from any kind of left wing politics. In what I judge to be a misguided and shallow analysis these magazines make a pitch towards popular readership by ditching a left politics for a boring but colourful middle ground — any opposition between stylish presentation and communist politics must be refused and seen as another ideological effect of years of commie-bashing by the forces of evil. There is no reason why communism cannot be done in style!

Except perhaps for financial reasons! — the practicalities of production are such that we cannot produce much at this stage. We do have the resources to produce the copy, to write reports and articles, based upon extensive research, we are also able to choose and produce images and do the lay-out. Production, printing, distribution and promotional costs however, need to be addressed. All of us have some degree of income and we will need to contribute more than just the time it takes to research, write and lay-out our material. Still this will not be enough, we need to consider issues like advertising, club funding from Unions and Student Organisations, fund raising (without ever seeming as mercenary as the DSP and Resistance newspaper-sellers-from-hell), and we will need to find ways to distribute our public material. These are neither inconsiderable, nor insurmountable problems.


We cannot afford to be boring, we can be amazing. We have learnt much from fantastic texts such as Semiotext(e), Vague, Zone, Interventions, we have experience as editors and in layout from student newspapers (Farrago, Arena, Rabalais), assorted journals, handbooks and magazines (Consuming Subjects, Collage, Growing Strong, Counter Course, Incite!, Left Out), we have produced endless numbers of leaflets, etc., etc., — our competencies are at a high level of accomplishment (we should get awards!). We are also literate in the critique of style and the ways authority is ‘manufactured’, we have learnt from semiotics, structuralism, cultural critique, we have even learnt to find the antecedents of contemporary flash theory in closer readings of Marx (perhaps this is best demonstrated via the insistent readings of Spivak, Negri, Deleuze and Guattari[3]), we are able to cogently critique the mainstream media and to present communism in a viable, relevant and appealing way. We have something to offer and can offer it with style.


[I wanted this following section on research — my last bit — to fit in somewhere up above, but it hasn’t found its place yet, and its not quite finished, still: … ] What do we have to offer? Here is the hard part — its all well and good to say we need to write, and perhaps we may even solve all of the varied production problems in getting our messages to a wide audience (finance, distribution, editorial). But there is also the question of what to write. This is not as empty a gesture as it sounds — we will not be able to simply write whatever it is that we think, or some adopted party line, or other dogmatism. We need to do the research work that will provide us with the basis for our actions.

For example, there is much that we need to uncover about environment issues. It is not enough to parrot the cheap journalism of eco-fascism and other non-communist versions of enviro-crit (from ‘deep ecology’ to ‘environmental youth alliance’). To choose an illustration relevant to one issue we are familiar with — we have only scraped the surface when it comes to exposing the activities of the mining industry, (bad metaphor pun intended), and while we can call sensationally for the urgency of our critique — the choice is extermination or communism — we have to provide back-up and detail if we want to see informed campaigns generated around the issues.

O.K. We can say: there is no choice. The orientations of capitalism and commerce no longer offer the promised, and it was always forlorn, hope of a new world that might entail freedoms rather than repressive order — the examples multiply from Cortes and the decapitation of Sth Americans and Spanish thirst for gold, to the gross horrors of contemporary warfare in the Gulf, Timor and Bougainville. The alternatives we can put before people are stark — extermination under capital through repression, work and environmental disaster, or communism. Although this communism must be, as Guattari and Negri exclaim “more than just the sharing of wealth (who wants all this shit?) — it must inaugurate a whole new way of working together” (Guattari and Negri 1990:13).

Our actions and writing must take a global focus. The most horrible effects of capital are now worked upon the bodies of non-metropolitain labourers (not that metropolitain workers are suddenly free). It is however possible to demonstrate the callous attitudes of our transnational corporations with regard to peoples and environs such as those in Bougainville, Kalimantan, Central Australia, India, Malaysia, the Philippines in a way that contrasts significantly with the cautious public relations activities of the corporations in metropolitain zones. This is not to claim that our work must only be ‘internationalist’ in a merely theoretical way, nor is this a call for ‘solidarity work’ — these transnationals are here; in the Universities, in the business districts of our cities, in the press and throughout the Government bureaucracies. Solidarity work means action against the transnational evils that are bunkered down in our localities — act Globally, think Locally.

And this action requires investigatory work as part of our campaigns. It is necessary to research and analyse the local manifestations of this transglobal evil. Our actions must be based upon intensive local investigation which will weed out the various corporate facades that lie before us right here — not only do we need to focus upon the Australian Defence Force, the Federal Government’s complicity with corporate imperialism, and CRA’s activities in Bougainville or Kalimantan, but we must also investigate and expose military research in Universities, corporate participation in the bureaucracies (CRA chair John Ralph for example sits on the Governments Co-operative Research Committee, was head of the Melbourne Olympics bid committee — which failed, ha! — and has been proposed by the Liberals as head of a new task force to oversee transport, shipping, railways and University infrastructure developments — there are many more examples as wierd as this) and so on …

… plus, research into other sectors, into the nature of work  — do we have a clear enough idea of the demographics of work in the various sectors — of the pressing issues in various industries, of the emergent social movements, of what we might anticipate in the coming years … etc., more needed here …

[1] More work must be done on this paper. I’m sorry that these are very rough notes for a discussion paper — and so for several reasons I don’t want them to be copied or circulated further than this meeting. The reasons include my embarrassment at how obvious much of this is, the fact that it is a rushed job, and that any serious treatment of the topic of writing would be best pursued in a more collaborative manner than this first draft can reflect. I have also not made use, in the paper, of section five of Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902) which bears directly on this topic and which would be an unavoidable reference point for our discussion.

[2] Marx wrote for many newspapers; Lenin wrote endless numbers of letters; the texts of Mao’s speeches were widely distributed within and beyond the party; Raya Dunayevskaya was an assistant to Trotsky for a while, but left for ‘ideological reasons’ to write a great fat book called Philosophy and Revolution 1973, Columbia University Press, and another called Rosa Luxemberg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, 1981, Uni of Illinois Press; Charu Mazumdar was a leader of the Maoist Naxalite uprising in India which formed the basis of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), he wrote many pithy and sharp pamphlets against the Landlords in India under the slogan “Annihilate the class enemy!”. The pen can be brutal when necessary.

[3] Gayatri Spivak has written on Marx’s theories of value in the texts of Jacques Derrida, on Gramsci analysis of Indian revolutionary movements and on international feminisms, but came to widest attention with her first major publication, the translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 1974, The Johns Hopkins University Press, in which, with a very long introduction, she sets Derrida’s work in its various contexts before going on to provide a critique and reading of the textual formations of Marxism; Antonio Negri wrote Marx Beyond Marx, 1991 Autonomedia, which was a reading of Marx’s Grundrisse — Negri had been involved in the Autonomia workers movement in the Fiat factories in Italy in the late seventies; with Negri, Felix Guattari wrote Communists Like Us: New Spaces of Liberty, New Lines of Alliance , in 1990, Semiotext(e), but is better known for his works with Gilles Deleuze, most incredibly their two-volume bumper productions Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1, Anti-Oedipus, 1972, Athlone Press, and Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2: A Thousand Plataus, 1982, Minnesota. These various interests in Marxism may be subject to the regular sectarian criticisms, and perhaps even with Spivak, might be considered too European, leading us only to a ‘sausages and three-veg’ version of communism. No doubt there are many more interesting things to read around the world.

Chapter 2. Philosophy

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is an incomplete chapter – there needs to be a framing as to why Spivak is discussed here, and why this section on philosophy. Another 600 words at the start and 1000 at the end. Its the only incomplete chapter.

There are antecedents for all writing and untangling the entanglements of ideas in order to clear a space for new words an for clarity – if not clarity, tampering – with the ways of the world is one of the points of reading. Writing co-constituted with reading of course, but the question of good writers and readers is also a mater of work and skill. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has been a tireless campaigner for writers and readers. Her protocols of reading would encourage the lexicon-consulting, source text seeking, learner who would learn to unlearn through reading, the conceits of reason in reason, history and the ‘speculative morphology’ of the modes of production debate. She reads, in the first section of Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Kant, Hegel and Marx with a view to making clear a path to learning how to occupy the subject position of the other (not just to say ‘OK, we are very good white people who do not speak for blacks’). Rather, the tracking of the position of the Native informant as it is overcoded – her word is foreclosed – in contemporary culture with the relatively privileged position of the postcolonial migrant, is a framework for recasting much of her previous argumentation around literature and history, in particular colonial history and subaltenaeity.

Spivak is well known for difficult essays, impressive translations – of numerous works by Mahasweta Devi and of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology – and a tireless speaking schedule that keeps her on a plane almost as often as she might spend in cafes or conferences. To have seen her work, giving a talk from two or three notebooks, annotating Fanon or Gramsci as she works with students – her talks are live – is to see what intellectual commitment can be. A coiner of sentences and concepts that have been often taken up, sometimes mistaken – strategic essentialism, subaltern cannot speak – but always interesting, Spivak is a demanding and necessary interlocutor for readers and writers today.

Of communism, she calls this an aspiration. Socialism is something to fight for, communism and ideal. We may have words on this. But it is necessary first to work through some of the key concepts, and perhaps engage a little, with the old men of philosophy. The Kant, Hegel and Marx sections. The thing is, Spivak will not behave as expected. Her readings are productively oblique, as I hope to explain.

1. Kant

Although this is at best an inverse aside (p.6), I think it is a generous if necessary move to note that the native informant is taken seriously in ethnography, where ethnography as sanctioned methodology of the discipline of anthropology produces texts unlike those Spivak addresses in this chapter. Kant, Hegel and Marx are not ethnography, yet even this methodological precept, emergent only just in Spivak’s text, popping up in the footnotes on occasion, threatening to be taken seriously itself, is not without its problems, well rehearsed elsewhere (the native informant in ethnography does not, for example, get credit for co-authorship, there are issues of authority, perhaps intellectual property, and questions of surveillance and voyeurism not far away).

So, this might serve as a ‘deconstructive lever’ to open up Spivak’s discussion. Her strategy seems to me to be consistent – whether the topic is Kant or Hegel, or even more clearly in the next chapter with Bronte, she shows she knows ‘the’ debates around a particular author or field with a quick sketch, then she shows she knows the critical angles on these debates and that these could be fruitful, but are often not without problems, but then, rather than detailing or extending these, she takes some moment or oblique angle on the text – say in Jane Eyre, after a quick survey of the standard repertoire, tracking of the comprador figures, we then see her opening up the text with attention to Bertha Mason, the creole Jamaican… In Kant, Hegel and Marx, in chapter one, we see something similar. As the book declares at the beginning, the recoding of the native informant by the postcolonial subject is the narrative frame, in this first chapter we are identifying the first figure in key texts of philosophy – proper names Kant, Hegel, Marx (the three wise men). The perspective of the native informant is the figure Spivak tracks through the heteronomy of the determinant, becoming reflexive in Kant, in the move of Spirit from unconsciousness to consciousness in Hegel and through the modes of production narrative and value in Marx.

In Spivak’s first section the text of Kant is mined for asides that indicate this (im)possible perspective of the native informant. Two characterisations are crucial, mention of the raw man (dem rohen Menschen) on page 13 and the Neuhollanders (and inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego) on page 26.

The Raw Man is the one who is terrified by what for the cultured, cooked, programmed, tuned, reasoning man is the sublime. The uneducated, and alien, natural, and outside raw being over against the cultured, receptive, moral person for whom desire is subject to reason, and freedom is a coherent choice to deploy ideas and imagination over mere sensibility. A supra-sensuousness that gives a greater freedom (though this itself is a supplementary and even ‘faked’, sensibility, since all truths are tropes).

To expose the workings of this figure of the native informant in Kant requires a ‘mistaken’ reading, but we get the point that Kant is insulting a large portion of humanity here. Thus, deconstruction can help reading in this task even as for Kant the raw man or the Neuhollander is not part of his text proper, and barely even an aside (it appears in brackets). To read up on the Neuhollander however is too huge a task (fn p28-9), and while Spivak gets a few details slightly wrong, she indicates the parameters of where a deconstructive reading might inform itself better than Kant – Neuhollanders are Aboriginal (not aborigine) Australians and these are differentiated, (though Warlpiri are not Koorie and there are further heterogeneities that deserve attention, especially regarding urban and outback Aboriginal politics – fns p27-8). So, this justification seems acceptable –to reprimand Kant for not knowing or caring for the specificity of life for Neuhollander does not mean we are also not just as ignorant. An effort to change this would be beyond the scope of the book – the task of reading a way well enough into the scene of Australia, colonial invasion, local differentiation, history of war-extermination-smoothing the dying pillow, right through to ongoing Howard Government interventions of unprecedented paternalism (police interventions not unlike the old Protection Society routines) is a huge task indeed. So much resides there, where, in a long and almost longing for time paragraph, she writes ‘I cannot write that other book that bubbles up in the cauldron of Kant’s contempt’ (p28n).

The imperial mission in philosophy comes across as the task of helping all men move from fear of the abyss (terror of nature) to appreciation of the sublime, through culture, programme, the ‘cooked’. Receptivity to ideas is the program of humanity (through culture). The plan is hierarchical and civilisational – polytheism equals a bad demonology, Christian monotheism comes closer to philosophy (p31). Something here returns to a point made in a certain interview in an earlier book –The Postcolonial Critic – where many gods are less good than few gods and the one god is best of all – leaving the raw man, Aboriginal and other animist or such like cosmologies outside of the text-civilizational path completely. And so ‘sanctioned inattention’ (p30) to the itinerary of the native informant on the path to postcoloniality via discussions of ethics and ethnicity allow this (im)possible perspective of the native informant to be both frozen and erased (foreclosure) and, we will see, into this space steps the self-appointed metropostcolonial, marketing culture from the home over there in that place now home over here (echoes of that old 1970s we were here because you were there intended).

That the native informant is both needed by the narrative of imperial aid, and by its continued privilege is clear (the south is not in the north, but is needed to maintain the North’s privilege, it is both excluded and included, and so (im)possible, we may say). That this today impacts upon neo-colonial post-Soviet, UN and IMF programmed globalisation, finance capitalism and the feminization of exploitative labour is another of Spivak’s key points. That these concerns should be first articulated through a reading of key founding texts of western modernity – Kant, Hegel, Marx – is genius.

The ‘dredging’ operation here is an effort to broach the mainstream education that permits a ‘sanctioned ignorance’ (p2) that learns to ignore the ways these key texts reveal the flotsam of their prejudice, and often loose their moorings. A counter narrative that makes visible the foreclosure of the subject without access to the position of narrator (p9) is her corrective intervention – an attempt to destabilise productively (p15).

This relies upon deconstruction in two steps 1) to show that truths are tropes, and 2) to show how the corrective to this obliges a further lie (p18-9).

In Kant, this is where God is smuggled in – moral inner determination, or reason, requires a moral author of the world, a purpose and a programme require an intelligent design – a god. (p23).

The tropes here are aporia that in Kant must be ignored in order to read how theory as the analysis of the sublime is already normed by the practice of having to assume a moral being. These are then displaced in the correctives by that smuggled god. And the imperialism that lets this pass unnoticed (p34) – sanctioned ignorance – and this is both geographical and hierarchical and named in those two casual asides about the raw uncultured man quaking in terror before nature and the ‘natural’ Neuhollanders. That civil society is then mapped onto the reason that was built on both the social mission of imperialism and the cultured taming of desire by reason is the opening of a possible rereading that might displace some of our ignorance.

2. Hegel

The section on Hegel is more a section on the Bhagavad Gita in context. It requires some homework with a difficult script which is much overlain with versionings, from the television serialisations and oleographs of popular culture in India today, to the chantings of Iskon in the streets of every major western metropolis and their sometimes very good vegetarian restaurants through to inanities like the pop band Kula Shaker’s exoticist Krishna consumptionism. Similarly, some effort is needed to move beyond simple received versions of caste, and several necessary texts should be consulted, especially ‘Hindus of the Himalayas’ by Gerald Berreman, and ‘Imagining India’ by Ron Inden just for starters.

Spivak herself is very well versed in this history, ironically almost, noting that she might even satisfy the demand that ethnics speak for themselves, having received the text as a ‘profoundly taken’ (p63) teenage enthusiast. Bengal as place of Brahmo Samaj movement, RamMohan Roy, Bhakti devotional cults and the like… History however is the key problem here where Hegel calls such texts empty and monotonous, and though he admires the beauty of the verses he finds them to have an absence of history, and so they are a deviation from the story of spirit he is – on a larger scale – wanting to graph (not chart, I guess, because a graph is less materialist, and more system-like, as in system without foundation…).

Spivak, of course, is not bored by alleged monotony. This is a lever which opens up Hegel to the world as another ‘mistaken’ reading (or rather reading of mistakes) is offered alongside an interested declaration that this effort might counter the too easy west-and-the-rest polarisations of colonial and postcolonial discourse studies (p39). This is part of a persistent attempt also to displace the simple reversals of Caliban and Prospero that some times may be lauded by progressive western liberals – and to do this by pointing to the ‘complicity between native hegemony and the axiomatics of imperialism’ (p37). (This has implications for work like Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici I think – a whole other story one day…)

For Hegel the Gita is not history, but it is possible to read this differently. The Gita must be situated within the Mahabharata, of which it is a small – however important, part. Various authorities and styles of doing so are surveyed – Kosambi, Motilal and van Buitenen. Spivak wants to differ slightly from these somewhat literal situatings to challenge the ‘often unexamined opposition between colonizer and colonized’ in much colonial discourse study (p46). Not realist, as in Kosambi, but about structure and text, and working via the mistaken attempt to engage that (im)possible perspective of the native informant which is her wider theme.

The native informant is a mistaken trope in that its anthropological heritage (as source of evidence) and as a possible recovery of a lost unity (that never did exist, just as the unified ‘third world’ is not there in the nationalist movements or lodged exclusively with the ethnic minorities in the first world who articulate it). Still, the idea of a contemporary reader of the Gita in context may be conjured; first to note a) how bemused such a reader might be at the suggestion that a text about the negation of history – Krishna teaches Arjuna that all appearance is illusion – might be taken as a-historical, secondly b) to note that Hegel and many exoticist readers do construct such a mistaken contemporary reader of the Gita; and c) to read this text on the back of the homework necessary – mentioned above – that would allow at least the refusal of a centralised interpellation of the native informant, by taking the trouble to learn enough to be able to produce such a ‘contemporary reader’ and not ‘teach the producer[s] of neo-colonialist knowledge to chant in unison, “one cannot truly know the cultures of other places, other times”’ (p50)

Of course the ideological use of the text is also local – the Brahmanical tradition can use the epic as a convenient vehicle for doctrine, says Kosambi. Karma and caste are crucial here, and Arjuna is inducted by Krishna into what is now often read as a conservative even fundamentalist (BJP, RSS) ideology. The question of history is brought up here by Spivak and she notes how Krishna contains all history within his true self, only revealing this to Arjuna by special dispensation, Krishna is unborn and imperishable, and manifests whenever the law is in decline, but was already there at the beginning. Human time is a lesser time here (p53). (There is an interesting comment on Erscheinung – illusion – that must make us think of Marx in Kapital, but this is a side-step). Krishna in divine form contains all appearance (Maya) and in Arjuna’s vision masticates all the combatants on the field of battle between his teeth. (p55-6). (Quiet aside – this teeth-gnashing scene terrifies me with the threat of flashbacks – and of course its been read as a bad mad trip by the denizens of Manali and the like… nod to Max Ryan, a colleague of yore – arriving in India dropping acid on the plane for fuck’s sake [true story]).

We are a long way from Hegel’s monotony in any case. Reading Spivak, this text could be understood as a thinking through of a transition from tribal society to something like a state form. This is a big claim and it will be no surprise that it will be a long task to work up the scholarship that would allow an assessment. Certainly the story of the Mahabharata seems to indicate an allegory of state building, but then the question of (national) allegory as applied to every epic text has been problematized in the debate between Ahmad and Jameson. Even as Ahmad wins that one, on a wider scale, I am not sure where we should rest on this one as yet… well, no doubt we should not rest, however monotonous some of the moves have become.

Page 60 is worth reading carefully in terms of the role of US third worldism and the uncritical enthusiasms for getting authentic ethnics (who could not possibly but be confections vis a vis the foreclosed native informant) to speak up . These lost figures are promoted both by indigenous elite nationalists and by well meaning western liberals and manifest today in fundamentalist essentialisms of a sometimes virulent type. Here the difference between an effort of sublating and the accomplished sublation is of interest (p60). ‘To repeat, neither the colonial or the postcolonial subject inhabits the (im)possible perspective of the native informant or the implied contemporary reader’ (p62).

What is Spivak saying here about the native informant she seems to need to trip her text, and for her to trick out a contemporary reader of the Gita in situ – seems quite impossible. There is no such timeless being as that native informant of anthropology uncritically championed by those who would retrieve a lost indigenous authenticity (and so deny colonialism and historical transition etc). On the other hand an uncritical celebration of the hybrid is no alternative to the vigilance that is necessary to continually challenge the complicity of postcolonial figuration with these options.

Where Spivak does not continue as far into the story as she might, there is also a lacunae – linking religious fundamentalist denial of basic rights with the legal denial of rights by new states such as Indonesia and Malaysia and ‘laws’ like the Internal Security Act is apposite. But we might go further and note how modified traditionalisms like panchashila might be used to justify such ‘law’ and look to history also – the ISA in Malaysia for example was a British colonial legal form designed to deal with the communist insurgence, adopted by the conservative elite at independence, where Tunku Raman was favoured by the Brits in the negotiated decolonisation in order to keep out the undefeated communists. This would today need to be brought forward to also take account of the raft of similar ‘laws’ passed in almost all states in the wake of the war of terror initiated by Bush and Blair. A certain complicity between crusaders and legal forms is not far fetched here.

The attempt though is to continue to undo the continuing subordination by the figuration of the native informant into a reader’s perspective – the work of a resistant reader and teacher is never complete (the dredging operation in the mainstream that runs muddy continually – see Mahasweta here).

3. Marx.
Marxism forecloses the native informant via the socialisation of women’s/reproductive labour power because of a Eurocentric prejudice. Foreclosed as vanguard. The next section examines the Asiatic Mode of Production and Value… These sketchy notes also need more work, so I have to delay yet again, and reread…

The next bit still needs considerable work

3. Marx.

Marxism forecloses the native informant via the socialisation of women’s/reproductive labour power because of a Eurocentric prejudice. Foreclosed as vanguard. The next section examines the Asiatic Mode of Production and Value… These sketchy notes also need more work, so I have to delay yet again, and reread…

AMP may not empirically work, but as part of a speculative morphology needed to trip the revolutionary dialectic (why in Europe is it possible to move from Feudalism to capitalism) there is the possibility of adding history to the static model. If we work with the expanded and total form of  value (not just the necessary abstract form of Capital 1, and off the comments on India as place of ‘no change’ needing interruption) we might see a space emerge which Spivak has named the resistance of the gendered subaltern, close kin to both native informant and diasporic homeworker

Spivak keeps wanting to rewrite this section – a palimpsest – an ongoing critique of everything appeals to me

Native informant foreclosed in Marxisms – Jameson AMP in China-India conflated, Derrida made spectral (and becomes illegal immigrant by the end) or made subject to UN women’s conference etc by liberal left feminists – at best transmuted into a vanguard by the communist movements, where resistance offers a more sophisticated form of foreclosure, especially perhaps as this has to be worked through in the interstices of the local and the global (between general [abstract] and total or extended forms of value).

Need to interrupt, based on reading, Marx is writing a textbook to train the proletariat (to give them the x-ray vision to see through the trick of commodity fetishism, wage slavery, etc) and becoming less confident of the bourgeois-proletariat embrace after defeats of 1848 and 1871 (who will write the 18th Brumaire of the end of the USSR). Marx as activist – at 26 philosophy negated by activism, subjugated by a philosophy of activism, against philosophy even as he preserves it, increasingly her responds to engagements in revolutionary politics with theory, and erring – the move of the International to new York – beyond Europe in 1871 is key. Increasingly Marx focuses on the commodity form post 71 as pharmakon – vol 2 and 3 left unread misses this abstraction.

Despite Witfogel, the AMP not a M.O.P., not Asiatic – a fiction – the first form that secures the argument of the self development of capital (p82) as part of a speculative morphology but not anything more tan a once used abstract sketch – and despite its non-existence, it is not to be merely buried (p79) – there is the ethical injunction to remove difference after taking it into account. To break the circuit ith persistent critique of what we cannot not want (capital) (p84)

The idea of a persistent critique of that which we cannot not want

Reinscribung Marx for use

Ruse of interrupting stasis – Europe intervenes, dialectic of resistance becomes possible…Asiatic mode a dangerous supplement a stasis that must be interrupted.

AMP can make fault lines visible in Euro history of production and so challenge the dominant account

Marx and totalitarianism, biography, nieetszche – death of the author. No reading a misreading (Gita?)

Value ignored by cultural theory

Expanded and total form not just economic – AMP a site between general abstract and total expanded form – pharmakon crucial here, for foreign trade is not treated the same way in Euro ddominant account – need to look at the specificities

Where the gendered subaltern in collective resistance confronts well meaning universal feminism and micro-credit etc running interference for the global – where the native informant is once again effaced, even as coded, named as underclass diasporic

Micro resistance can run interference for the global

Then link to this section on Mahasweta Devi:

I want you,
To write poetry,
To compose songs,
To form an
I want you to race your horses,
Through the blood of the
Let the workers come out from their factories
With a pledge to
If you accept this proposal,
Well and good!
If not,
You will remain in my world
A mere flippant playmate
In some poem or
(from ‘To the Sun’, poem from jail, Cherabandaraju)

You who have made the mistake of being born in this country
must now rectify it: either leave the country,
or make war!
(from ‘You who have made the mistake’, Baburao Bagul)

All parties, those to the Left and those to the Right alike, have failed to keep their promises to the common people. There is little prospect of any significant change in these things, at least in my lifetime. Hence I have to go on writing to the best of my ability in defence of the dispossessed and the disinherited, so that I may never have reason too feel ashamed to face myself. For all writers are accountable too their own generation and have to answer for themselves
(Mahesweta Devi, ‘Author’s Preface’ to
 Bashai Tudu)

With a much bigger work on revolutionary songs and writing in mind, some additional notes starting from these two fragments of poetry and a couple of sentences from an introduction to a short story having to do with tribal and peasant struggles, and writing, in India. I cannot attempt a new study of those struggles myself – there are very fine books available written in India such as that by Sumanta Banerjee: India’s Simmering Revolution; Barbara Joshi (ed): Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement‘; and Mahesweta Devi Bashai Tudu, among others, and all of which are essential reading. But there is space, perhaps, for a discussion of one aspect of the role of writing in political struggles – even as this is considered at a considerable distance from the geographical site of such struggles. While reading such poets is it strange to be interested in the status of such writings as translated, published and circulated in quite diverse contexts by a far-reaching publishing apparatus, bookstores, footnotes, libraries, blogosphere. This would be another variant of an old routine, often overdone I think, but beginning with questions about authorship.

The question of who writes is interesting in the case of Mahesweta Devi. A writer who conceives her writing as a part of the fight against oppression and exploitation of the tribal people of India and who says she writes on such matters so as to know she has not done nothing, so she can live with herself, even though she also thinks the task is hopeless and that the situation is getting worse.

Devi is translated by Spivak, who could in any other context be justly famous for these translations alone, irrespective of her deconstructive feminist Marxist work in other fields. Through Spivak’s translations and commentary Mahesweta Devi has became known to the academic classes worldwide. Spivak had first taken up this work as a way to explore the problem of her positioning as an Indian born postcolonial intellectual writing within the Western academic industry. She once said she did not know “how to speak to women out there” and problematised the issue of how academic work might ‘help’ those who are oppressed – while there would be no illusion that translating work is an answer to this problem, it does seem that Spivak’s engagement with these writings is a development in response to the charge of relevance, and a commitment to active struggle. Subsequently the translation work has become a larger, longer, long-term commitment, which extends to more and more volumes (published by Seagull Books) and quietly wins Spivak much-deserved translation awards.

Many of Mahesweta Devi’s stories are about tribals fighting oppression, resisting exploitation, rebelling against authority. Such stories have, many agree, an immediacy and commitment that is not often found, including amongst tribal writers themselves. Though there is a strong tradition of writing among tribals and Dalits, especially fostered by the Dalit Panther movement.
Amongst the most prominent themes of Dalit poetry is a refrain that calls upon all members of society to either ‘wage war’ or ‘leave the country’ (a somewhat more urgent and insistent variant of the slogan: ‘if you are not looking for a solution you are part of the problem’). There are other examples.

The status of these differently placed writers – poet, author, translator – might be raised in a way that questions the role of intellectuals within political struggles – and its not simply that these roles are distinct – the tribal and Dalit poets, perhaps imprisoned, writing-as-struggle; are not necessarily far from the middle-class writer writing in solidarity with the oppressed peoples; who is not always divorced from the first-world ‘post-colonial’ theorist translating for a global market; there are criticisms of ‘position’ to be made in each of these cases, and reasons to support and endorse the political work also, within the apparatus of texts and books and print.

That Devi sees her writing as commitment is unquestioned. Yet sometimes her despairing conclusion that nothing can be done to reverse the continued exploitation of tribals under an uncompromising system is unanswerable in a way that might paralyse. Yet this provokes because her assessment takes critical account of the fact that the left parties have not organised around tribal issues because of vote dependency upon groupings such as the middle peasantry and the urban working class, who are higher in the Indian social hierarchy. She claims she must write in favour of the oppressed so as to never feel ashamed to face herself – and if this seems a particularly middle-class anxiety that would not be shared by the Naxalite poets languishing in Presidency Jail, it is exactly the kind of problem which has exercised the thoughts of the Presidency College trained Spivak and the distance – that Spivak herself would be first to point to – is part of the point.

The poetry of some Dalit writers is wholly infused with the routines of organised political opposition, and sometimes seems overburdened with the wooden exhortations to struggle, to organise, to agitate that are the staple of manifestos and pamphlets. At the other end of the spectrum, if these were just glossy narratives about tribal struggles only for the display tables of Western bookstores, marketed under the signature of a prominent deconstructionist/feminist/Marxist critic, carries a burden of over-determination which might seem wholly irrelevant and inappropriate to those involved today in particular tribal struggles. Yet perhaps all these are the sites of engagement that must coexist in a transnational context, and despite the differences of local and global, of immediacy and generality (from poetry in jail, to middle-class Bengali solidarity, to the reading rooms of the academy) these are somehow what we want to become circuits of ‘the same’ struggle.

The questions that are to be raised here include that of the authorisation of the one who writes, and adjacent to this of the one who translates. The implied audience, motive, identity – Devi writes so as to be able to face herself; Spivak writes to wake up slumbering first-world audiences; a Naxalite poet like Samir Ray writes in anger and as a call to comrades to organise – are all somewhat unusual here, and in each case now belong to a context where immediate and personal writing is translated and distributed through powerful and extensive global networks. The notion of self deployed by the one who writes, and how this may or may not be somewhat different in translation deserves to be considered in the light of how this is related to a middle-class anxiety about the role of intellectual work, and to the general position of intellectuals to activist movements. (Gramsci’s discussion of the organic intellectual, the intellectual capacity of all workers, the choice of the intellectual to work with the subaltern or the oppressor – the rewards of the latter). This question ‘who writes’ is often a masquerade of criticism which achieves little but continued job security for the named author (‘Hutnyk’ at Goldsmiths for example etc)

So, if this were to go anywhere further, there would be things still to study – including old standard themes that might otherwise be avoided – Dumont-esque parables about the problem of caste, its constructionality. Does Dalit organising escape the ingrained fragmentism of caste by organising a conscious underclass who must, as a transformative and emancipatory project, transcend and absorb oppressor culture

Of course caste fragments along collective lines, collectivities become lobby groups within negotiating structures and spokespeople become the arbitrators of identity politics – group against group. The underclass must disappear if the transformation of consciousness and social inequality is to be comprehensively achieved. Such a consciousness raising remains possible and must be practiced every moment

– work among the people always, and creatively, learn to learn from below
– dump the tired old posters in favour of more localised ones
– more creativity
– liberation is something that requires the participation of all (a poet in jail writing to those outside telling them to organise).
– dialectic oscillation between individual reflection and participation in campaign work is the model imagined here
– this possibly begins a transcendence from below
– it won’t work unless all you fight
– go among those who fight (work for new kinds of organisation, cross-sectoral alliances/meetings).
– the role of the intellectual, such as Devi is to be able to find all info everywhere
– Mao – join with the workers…
– liberation is individual and collective
– liberation must before all it cannot be just for the one grouping, the grouping must also have the ambition of dissolving (this question of difference/alliance…)
– especially where the agitating group is the lowest (common denominator)
– thus solidarity writing with the oppressed also has the political project of working to wake up the other sections of society, and must even mean providing education work for the denizens of academia in the west/ Liberation is a joint project, is bound up for all- there is no alternative – extermination or communism. You have made the mistake of being born on this planet, either leave or make war!…

Books in English by Mahasweta Devi [with some annotations, which I may expand as I read again]
Five Plays – Seagull Books 1986 trans Samik Bandyopadhyay [includes the powerful ‘Mother of 1084’, which I also saw a film version of at the London Film Festival years ago]
Bashai Tudu – Thema 1990 – trans Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Spivak
Imaginary Maps – Theme Calcutta 1993 trans Gayatri Spivak
Breast Stories – Seagull 1997 trans Gayatri Spivak [has the texts Gayatri has published in her books, and some new ones]
Dust on the Road – Seagull 1997 trans Maitreya Ghatak [Devi’s activist writings]
Rudali – Seagull 1999 trans Anjum Katyal [also made into a play and a film – as Rudaali]
The Queen of Jhansi – Seagull 2000 trans Mandira Sengupta [originally published 1956, Devi’s first book is based on historical fieldwork and is a rollicking great read in the run up to the 150th anniversary of the first war of Indian independence – see our campaign site]
Titu Mir – Seagull 2000 trans Rimi b Chaterjee
Till Death Do Us Part – Seagull 2001 trans Vikram Iyengar
Old Women – Seagull 2002 trans Gayatri Spivak
Bitter Soil – Seagull 2002 trans Ipsita Chanda
The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh – Seagull 2003 trans Ipsita Chanda
Chotti Mundu and His Arrow – 2003 Blackwell trans Gayatri Spivak [big, great, challenging – with a prose rhythm in English that I can imagine feels like how one walks across hot scorched earth. No?]
Dewana, Khoimala and the Holy Banyan Tree – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Romtha – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Bait – Seagull 2004 trans Sumanta Banerjee [yes, the simmering Sumanta]

There is also a film about Mahasweta Devi by filmaker and blogger Shashwati Talukdar and a 1997 interview here.

– and finally a red salute to Comrade Saiffuddin of the CPI ML(Towards New Democracy) group for the time in the early 1990s he spent talking with me about Charu Mazumdar in a way that let me write about Indian left history in Critique of Exotica. There are many comrades who’s glorious names will become crossword clues in our leisure time games after we win… (farming in the morning, philosophy in the afternoon, sportscars [for all] on the way to dinner, and weird commie wordplay fun after…)

Chapter 3. Proletarianization

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

 The future of Europe and the world must be thought from the question of the psycho-power characteristic of control societies, and whose effects have become massive and destructive.  Psycho-power is the systematic organisation of the capture of attention made possible by the psycho-technologies that have developed with the radio (1920), with television (1950) and with digital technologies (1990), spreading all over the planet – Bernard Stiegler[i]

There is a kind of unseemly scramble underway to cope with apparent changes in the technological and social composition of capital today. It is my argument that this scramble is symptomatic of a political failure and a danger that can be analyzed with the help, albeit taken critically, of the work of Bernard Stiegler, and of course – as if it were necessary to even say this – with Marx. Stiegler’s is an unorthodox Marxism, which is not always a bad thing. He diagnoses an ‘indeterminacy rising out of an always-accelerating future’ and this opens the space for a ‘battle for intelligence’.[ii] A key concept relevant to this battle is quite an old one – a somewhat expanded notion of proletarianization, building upon Gilbert Simondon’s notion of collective, technical and human ‘individuation’,[iii] but derived initially from comments by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Stiegler calls ‘proletarianization’ Marx’s greatest contribution.

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels refer to the way in which the capitalist mode of production forces more and more people into dependency upon waged labour and they report how the lower strata of the middle class, ‘the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, retired tradesmen generally, handicraftsmen and peasants’ are sinking gradually into the proletariat. They explain that the ‘diminutive capital’ of these lower strata leaves them unable to compete with large scale Industry and this Industry also enforces the passing of specialized skills in the face of new methods of production.[iv] Finally, though the teleological trajectory here is not so simple, Marx and Engels stress that the rise of a proletarian consciousness and proletarian class interest, opposed to the bourgeois class and capital, signals the advent of a political struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie so as to inaugurate a world in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[v]

Stiegler has both a narrower and a more generalized sense of proletarianization than Marx and Engels, and he wants to rethink the contemporary situation in which we find our lives saturated by what he calls ‘psychotechnologies’ – for which often the shorthand is television and Google.  It is of course unclear what demarcation lines mark out proletarian status or not. For Stiegler, the entire middle class seems to have become proletarianized, subject to the power of retentional devices that manage the contradictions of capital with ‘cultural control’, ‘consumption’ and which produce ’impotence’ and ‘self destructive transgressions [passages à l’acte]’.[vi] No doubt most data input jobs qualify as impotence-making – inclusive of academics toiling away in the teaching factory – but this designation of everyone as proletarian differentiates neither regionally nor historically with regard to class composition or cultural character. Nevertheless, focussing upon technologies, work and skills, a schematic is given in the Manifesto of the Ars Industrialis group, co-founded by Stiegler:

We call proletarianization the process through which an individual or collective knowledge, being formalized through a technique, a machine, or an apparatus, can escape the individual – who thus loses this knowledge which was until then his knowledge. The first definitions of proletarianization, emerging from the analyses of Smith as well as Marx, made clear that pauperization results in the first place from the loss of savoir-faire of workers enslaved to machines, and no longer masters of their tools (craftsmen).

In the 20th century, it was consumers who lost their savoir-vivre – replaced by apparatus, such as the television set, which kept children “occupied,” and by services, such as the television network, which kept children “occupied” through the apparatus for televisual reception, but in such a way as to create “available brain time”. This loss led to a deprivation of recognition, sociability, and finally existence, generating the suffering of the consumer become miserable.

But the intellectual workers of “cognitive capitalism”, the functions of which are increasingly confined within the parameters of information systems the principles of which they are unable to modify – frequently because they are unaware of them – are subjected as well to a proletarianization of higher cognitive functions where what is lost is that which constitutes the life of the spirit as a critical, that is, rational, authority, capable of theoretical self-formalizing and as such of being self-critical – Ars Industrialis. [vii]

In this updated notion of proletarianization, the role of television, of children, of misery and the place of self-criticism are each foregrounded. Stiegler’s contribution has implications that need to be considered in relation to the very idea of a global proletariat; it has consequences for evaluation of both constraints and openings in technical innovation; it demands attention in terms of shifting class relations and communications; and lastly, it requires a critical assessment and rethinking of the ways race, gender and concerns about resistance play out in different cultural and value formats. This is to evaluate the appropriation of Marx for new times, and this paper sets out to consider this use, the place of technology, the contexts – so as to prepare the ground for questioning of how the global might be taken into account, how events and values are marked and measured, just who are the contemporary proletariat and how is this expressed, presented, represented, or transmuted in reflexive theory-writing. The paper aims to re-examine television and education, to think again about youth, family and value, and to consider the general intellect over against (or as) that which makes us stupid or impotent and subject to a Capital that ruins lives.



Television has been a long-term interest for Stiegler, and subject of an important book with Jacques Derrida, originally video-recorded conversations, called Echographies of Television.[viii] In the third volume of his projected five volume series Technics and Time, Stiegler returns to television, somewhat strangely critical of Pierre Bourdieu for doing a book of his televized discussions,[ix] but also interestingly offering a number of unfolding code-words for televisual forms, placing the ‘industries of communication and information’ at the ‘very heart of technical systems for the production of material goods’.[x] These code words appear as general terms for the convergence of ‘audio-visual industries’ or ‘psychotechnologies’,[xi] while in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, he worries that:

what parents and educators (when they are themselves mature) patiently, slowly, from infancy, year after year pass on as the most valuable things civilization has accumulated, the audiovisual industries systematically destroy, every day, with the most brutal and vulgar techniques, while accusing the family and the education system of disaster. This care-less-ness is the primary cause of the extreme attenuation of educational institutions as well as the family structure.[xii]

Stiegler’s wider concern with emergent technologies responds to this assault upon the values of civilization. I will not yet contest his argument that civilization is being destroyed by television, or that we should despair for a ‘herdish nihilism’ where a ‘stupid passivity’ means ‘they [we?] no longer believe in anything, no longer want anything, no longer do anything’.[xiii] At this level the hyperbole is clear – with oft-expressed alarm, Stiegler is concerned that when a baby sees the TV remote as it’s first preferred rattle this is a disaster inaugurating a battle of ‘incomparable importance’.[xiv] A battle for intelligence and for attention, this is at first a battle with television, where he ‘does not want to say … that you are to think the same as others … [but] you necessarily watch [television] with others, at the same time as others … [and so] … television is a process that tends to make you conform to an average’.[xv]

My first point is that this rendering of the problem is alarmist and patronizing. Stiegler reports, from a quite small sample of relatively obscure sources, on the astonishing statistics for television consumption in the ‘lower classes’ in England. He marvels that nearly 75% of children between 0 and 3 years have a television in their bedrooms.[xvi] This is then linked to the likely development of attention deficit disorder and extrapolated globally into ‘a global attention deficit disorder’, which, in turn, is ‘transferred to the professional adult world as the cognitive overflow syndrome’.[xvii] There are at least two problems with this: first, even accepting the statistics suggests that it is not television that is the trouble here, but parenting and commodity abundance; secondly, the wild escalation to alleged cognitive overflow in adults is tenuous at best. The extensive television consumption of the class in question here – the ‘lower classes’ – is not significantly dissimilar to others, but the alleged overload of the professional adult is a questionable thesis in any case. Complaint about information gluttony is itself a kind of sales-hype or status claim: ‘I’m so busy’. The diagnosis of ‘a regression in intelligence’ is not something we could adequately gauge from the admittedly often pseudo-intelligible activities of the professional class. The claims here are also undifferentially European, or Euro-American. This is not to say there are no problems with the technological and even televisual domination of large swathes of contemporary life worldwide, but ideological scaremongering might be tempered by a wider and more systematic evaluation and analysis of how television, or new modalities of capitalism, rewires both brain and work, globally.

There is of course too much of Stiegler’s oeuvre to read if a comprehensive assessment is to be made, and among his most provocative arguments is that television is also potentially sometimes able, like art and the cinema, to solicit deep attention[xviii] – as detailed in the conversation with Derrida where Derrida says he could be ‘tempted to utilize images in the presentation of knowledge’ and to teach on television so long as he had a 20 hour programme and people would have to read in advance.[xix] Derrida sees this is dangerous otherwise, but there are greater dangers. When Stiegler follows Katherine Hayles in suggesting that today’s youth are subject to brain modification via different media, he then writes as if he and his readers are the last literate generation, the last to read books like his book, and the last to care.[xx] It may be churlish to react by noting that the same was said about comics in the 1930s, as well as, in their time, cinema, photography and film. Television too was welcomed in apocalyptic tones.

What is missing here so far is the question of why this was the case, as well as discussion of the stakes of the battle. We need an evaluation of the place of capital in this scenario. It is a capital that adapts, modifies its technical make-up accordingly, and yet does not, and cannot fully exhaust its workforce without anticipating extinction. This is an escalation which, irrationally, tends towards exhaustion even as the workforce is transformed and moulded in use, with psychotechnologies now refined into microtechnologies, which in turn ‘have actually begun to modify the very structure of the body, including body shape … reproductive – procreative – technologies, as well as the invention of new kinds of bodies … genetic modifications, cloning and so on’.[xxi] Stiegler here refers again especially to ‘cognitive overflow syndrome’, which is a ‘process of disaffection and disaffectation through cognitive as well as affective saturation’[xxii] – an overwhelming cascade of information that assaults and transforms the space of social, and economic, life. As if to prove the point, he offers a bewildering array of synonyms for this crisis: to take just a few pages from where he leaves us at the end of his book Taking Care, we read of ‘disequilibrium’, ‘infantalizing hegemonies of various psychopowers’, ‘disindividuation … deformation … destruction’, ‘catastrophic effects on juvenile consciousness’ and ‘attentional deficits and intergenerational problems’.[xxiii]

Proletarianization is here a disaster which fosters mass distraction, or, in Marx’s more precise word, a ‘cretinization’. This is the capture of attention in a grinning fascination with commodities that claim each to be different but are mass produced, congealed and alienated fetish objects. In Capital, Marx goes on to show how the tools, organisation, training methods and socio-economic forms of capital produce a mode of production rife with contradictions, that, in turn, the proletarians will fight:

the mass of misery, oppression, slavery and degradation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united, and organised by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production … the centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument bursts asunder.[xxiv]

Stiegler, however, accuses Marx of not understanding consumption.[xxv] Yet Stiegler’s own concern remains at the level of the family in Taking Care, when the destruction of long-circuits of being means sociality is destroyed by way of the loss of inter generational cooperation and through ‘deterritorialized economic forces (and their programming industries)’.[xxvi]

Stiegler is arguing that what can be lost to television, audio-visual industries and psychotechnology-become-microtechnology, is the imaginative shared space of play within the family. This in turn is destroyed to the extent that the psychotechnologies of the culture industry take control of transitional objects and transitional spaces.[xxvii] That baby rattle as remote carries a lot of weight in this argument, although some will say it is not clear that the mediated world of psychotechnologies does destroy such transitional spaces even if the objects are changed. Is it wise to dismiss the not unproblematic yet certainly significant impact of new technologies like Skype and videochat to connect absent parents and distant grandparents to internet-savvy kids? Even as these technologies are saturated commodities, might we recall the significance of mediated relationality in examples of, for instance, radio and television shared with mates at a distance, via mix tapes in the past, and via Spotify today? Or in the ‘isolated’ teenager finding ways to replicate pop, rock and hip-hop poses in the bedroom – a self-formation also ‘at a distance’ but not less mediated than face-to-face transindividuation unless one privileges the pastoral? Can we really say the contemporary post-Google situation is more commodified than the bourgeois family already always was – with all its psychotic investments and constraints? Care can also exist, and be lost, at a distance. There is both stupification and mechanisation, but it does not follow that televisual disconnect is inevitably an arrangement that only belongs to capitalism – which itself can be overthrown or sublated.

In the scramble to make sense of the changes that confront us, Stiegler is an interesting voice. I want to be careful not to present his comments about civilization, genetics, body shape and other potentially normative formations as merely a defense of the bourgeois family, nor as an attack on the culture industry and television in the manner of a warmed-up caricature-Adorno. A more careful appreciation of what is at stake when accumulated civilizational merit is located in family relationships might consider new ways in which these values can be articulated without necessarily being coded and monetarized in ways that Google can cash. The stake here is surely not that the traditional domestic and educational forms must be preserved, but that the appropriations of those with capital, the exploitation of relations of production and the consumptions that valourize those appropriations, might be sufficiently and fundamentally opposed. This means asking what it would mean to win against a capitalism that happily exploits television, nanotechnology and education as teaching factory. It also perhaps means winning against and by way of proletarianization, and through stupidity and machines – stupification and mechanization – as we shall see.

Stiegler’s effort to address key problems of the contemporary social and political circumstance deserves a careful examination that perhaps looks more to continuities than to ruptures. The alleged ‘upheaval’ of communication systems and cybernetics might be taken in a less sensationalist mode, not to ‘ignore or downplay’ the developments entailed, since I agree that ‘the very essence of cultures and societies is at stake’,[xxviii] but to provoke a possibly different reading. A less techno-obsessive approach might claim both less and more of proletarianization, as fear and love of technology equally fall under the spell of the ubiquitous commodity system. It may still be necessary to question Stiegler’s somewhat circular view that ‘enhancing the points of contact and communication devices between and among human groups means a tendency to reduce their ability to resist the concretizing process of technical tendencies’.[xxix]

What concerns Stiegler is that the ‘interior milieux’ of social groups are captured and dissolved by the ‘exterior milieu’ of the market in a synchronized ‘radiophonic and televisual … flux’.[xxx] The market, and the forces of capital signalled in that word, flux, are crucial contexts, but rather than the perpetuation of alarm over television, perhaps we might focus a more appropriate alarm upon capital in order to evaluate flux as an emergent and different density of the distribution of relationships of production. Like Marx thinking of co-operation in the factory, might we not imagine flux not only as algorithm for record sales and video hits on Youtube, but as a potential form of connectivity for those working collaboratively and politically to organize the atomized?

Attention and Education

international programming industries substitute for national institutions (national education systems) that no longer appear compatible with the new imperatives of transmission, as (now) defined by the global industrial mnemotechnical system. A true war of minds is at work in this evolution[xxxi]

Stiegler talks of evolution and a ‘mutation’ of the global capitalist system and calls for a ‘new critique of political economy’.[xxxii] One, perhaps overly literary, way to renew Marx’s critique is to consider narrative, which is of course also relevant to television, new media, and the transformations of family and education introduced by the cultural industries. Stiegler perhaps has this in mind when valourizing the grandparent at play with the child, creating long-circuits of transmission that would include the favoured technology of the book, the storybook, and storytelling. I want to start this section with the warning that, no doubt in some respects like television and Facebook, narrative is pharmacological in that it can both shape minds and educate just as much as it may capture and contain thinking. Indeed, in a consequence Stiegler perhaps must omit, it may be ineffective, disorganized, and effectively ignored by the child: ‘Granny, what big teeth you have!’ Let us note the suggestion that audiences can become immune to the charms of a story, can tune in and out, and can leave it unresolved, or ‘to be continued’. There is perhaps a dialectic here: the distraction of attention may actually be a refined and critical inattention.

Stiegler however is clear that the family scene has been subsumed,[xxxiii] and this subsumption proceeds via ‘progressively liquidated life skills in an industrial economy based on programming industries’:[xxxiv]

the process of capturing public attention is handled by service industries, cultural industries and programs synchronizing individuals’ activities into mass behaviors motivated by business plans … Service industries that utilize psychpower no longer sell anything to a population that thus no longer needs to pay anything: people, having abdicated their majority without being conscious of it, “give themselves” to these industries, or rather, the industries capture them as “available brain time” psychopower enterprises to sell young adults on the market[xxxv]

Apart from the fact that we do mostly pay for television, mobile phones, Macbooks™, internet connections, printer ink and cinema tickets to see The Social Network,[xxxvi] the capture of – the gift of – available brain-time through instruments of psychopower is a crucial concept that relates, almost inversely, to the process of proletarianization as deskilling that comes with the mass industrialization of human ability and capacities. The notion of abstract labour power is here generalized, even if it is still unclear if I am really fully involved in ceding my brain-time as abstract brainpower calculated as an aggregate of labour across the entire social field – if brain-time, attention, or psychopower – is to be harvested, then we should perhaps then talk of cloud labour in the same way we talk of cloud computing.

There is also the question of the degree to which, outside of the strict wage relation, brain-time is more or less constitutive of labour capacity today. Is brainpower tapped through unpaid work more than was the case previously when it was possible to talk of reproduction, community, morality and nation? Admittedly in the European bourgeois family, unwaged supportive, attentive and reproductive work was even more exclusively the unpaid work of women; community, is attention to neighbourliness which sustains the life force of a workforce; moralism is attentive, whether derived from tabloid media or religious precept; and citizenship/nationalism contributes to the coherence of a population willing to sacrifice itself for abstract ideas. These are all sustaining unwaged contributions to capital that also have their intellectual – brain-time – components. It may be that the originality of contemporary capitalism, and of the new critique of political economy, consists in being able to replace these old terms with the new language of service, culture and business plan, which frankly does not seem all that new after all.

But it is the transformations that are our concern, and among the greatest of these in relation to ‘proletarianization’ is cretinization, and perhaps the theme most relevant for today in the face of widespread cuts to education budgets, welfare, migration – international students – libraries, the Arts, terms and conditions of work and school/training curriculum content, is the retooling of education and knowledge:

Given that, today, mechanized understanding and the schematism of the cultural industries have converged, this education system, a product of the nineteenth century but inspired by the seventeenth and eighteenth as a structure for the interiorization of prostheses constructing the history of ideas and knowledge and of the We insofar as universal consciousness disseminated national stories – this educational system is itself now being questioned within the technical system as it (and, along with it, consciousness) transforms into the global mnemotechnical industrial system[xxxvii]

It is Stiegler’s argument that ‘the public education systems and training programs instituted in the 1880s have been slowly but irresistibly ruined by mass media and the programming industries, in particular by television’.[xxxviii] This ruination has been a ‘self-labotimization’, replacing public opinion with the audience[xxxix] as if it were undoing the social contract worked out to fit training to capital with an unreasoned and unthought-through, always-on attention to gadgets and devices, that themselves are transforming the way we teach, the place of the University and the School, and the very idea of instruction. We might note that computer programs do come with manuals, but it is perhaps better to learn how they work intuitively, exploring the drop down menus etc.[xl] Stiegler’s lament however is that professors and ‘all those responsible for the transmission of knowledge’ have ‘become marginal at best’ or ‘completely stripped of their role’.[xli] This belongs to ‘acceleration’[xlii] and a view of ‘school as a kind of playground for babysitting’.[xliii] In this fairy tale, the professor is a ‘perpetual student’,[xliv] trapped in a Peter Pan scenario. In actuality, it is not ‘only educational institutions that can provide historical consciousness to collective consciousness’.[xlv] Here the danger is of producing a fantasy vanguardism without a vanguard, or Party, to accompany a Kantianism without transcendental subject – in the end an echo of mechanized rote learning when things are, we may hope, more complicated.

The analysis of why education has a place as pharmaka is well known. ‘The power exercised by the programming industries’ psychotechnologies today ruins all the benefits of [the] revolution of (inherited) intelligence’ accelerated by industrialization and its need to elevate the population through public education.[xlvi] No doubt this is an astute interpretation of the ways education is tied through printing – as tertiary retention, explained below – to the industrial-commercial system, but the argument of ‘ruination’ sounds strangely familiar from elite educational circles in the UK. Lamentations that the kids don’t pay attention anymore, that standards have slipped, of a lack of respect for elders and a general shallowness of culture is an attitude that usually does not need references to Ancient Greece or children’s fantasy to back it up. The ‘ruination’ thesis also sounds familiar in that it ascribes power to the technologies themselves, rather than the uses made of them. Marketization of technology requires a market structure that was the core material component of industrial training. Marx’s comments on training in chapter 16 of Capital seem highly relevant here, as we will soon see.

For Stiegler, the key problem is the ‘ruining of all sense of responsibility’,[xlvii] lost through television’s destruction of the ways we foster attention through inter-generational relations. However much I agree this is a part of the equation, I am sceptical that the schools, once called ideological state apparatuses for good reason, are the last bastion in a struggle against entrapment by Microsoft and the like. Even though there are grounds on which to oppose monopoly, the blanket condemnation does not seem warranted, television is condemned where, for example, the failure of left organization should perhaps also be the focus – why is the Left so bad at TV? As Stiegler has also said, not every capture of attention need be a short-circuit. Since when did a progressive politics think that the systems of public opinion formation that emerged from hierarchical education, especially in France for example, were not something with which to do away? Even if the violence of television, programming and education may be excessive, a new equilibrium seems optimistic – the ‘disequilibrium’ of the ‘reign of television’ for Steigler ‘tends to diminish everything that might be elevated, crushing and literally wiping out all other social organization of transmission and, of course, first of all the family and the school’.[xlviii] Yet it is not only turning off the TV and going back to school that will save us, and it should be underscored that this is not all that Steigler recommends.

When television replaces literacy, Stiegler’s model of writing appears both more detailed and narrower than that of his mentor Derrida. This has profound implications when he describes post-WW2 audio-visual programming as having retooled the educational developmental disciplinary structure of the schools. The consequent ‘psychological, affective, cultural, economic and social disaster’[xlix] has introduced inter-generational disconnect, insecurity and delinquency as well as the marketing-driven removal of youth from the educational system so as to adapt them for immediate market needs. Here the valorization of a European education is posited in association with both writing and French colonialism – unfortunately not yet taking into account the experience of, and research upon, the colonial subjects who also received that literacy and education. This dictates a closer inspection of Stiegler’s notion of writing as grammatization.

Machine Grammar


In this context, we can think of writing as a technology which breaks the flow of language into discrete elements. This too has a close relation to the idea of proletarianization where ‘discretization’ invades the gestures of workers and these are grammafied for automatic production in the machine. As we have seen, one component of Marx and Engels’ notion of proletarianization is that it entails a process of losing knowledge and production skills during their incorporation into the machines of industrial production. For Stiegler, this entails the proletarianization of participation in the technical history of memory, a ‘grammatization’ process that is situated between an amnesic and hypomnesic memory, that leaves the individual abstracted or alienated from the milieu of technical apparatuses that shape memory, indeed being. The machine works the worker, as Marx would say over and over – the worker is an ‘appendage’.[l] But now, the machine is the individual, in a kind of ‘short-circuit’[li] of the workers who have together developed and innovated the technical milieu of their work, tools and systems. The creative agents of the milieu become the subjects of it, even objects. Within a system of tools and knowledges, workers become machinery with a cost, including cost of maintenance, repair and scrapping, that is separated from any self-constituting grasp. This occurs at all levels of the social order.

Stiegler then makes an important intervention suggesting that it is not just knowledge and skills but thinking that has been smashed. We have been made to un-think by separations, dissociation, grammar. This might be reformulated in Marxist phrasing as the machines think us – the General Intellect becomes an oppressive collective will, alienated from us – which of course we need to sublate. But Stiegler does not concede this to Marx, and says ‘Marx still does not properly analyze the accumulation of intellectual capital that has today become and essential issue, and more generally he ignores what I call artificial retention’.[lii] It seems Stiegler confines intellectual capital – not General Intellect – to retentional devices, whereas when Marx says the machine works the worker, many times throughout his later work, it is clear General Intellect is both a continuation of the deskilling entailed in the industrial division of labour, but extending also to bourgeois ideas and ruling class circles more generally. In the Daily Tribune of 1861 he writes, ‘the progressive division of labor has, to a certain extent, emasculated the general intellect of the middle-class men [and women] by the circumscription of all their energies and mental faculties within the narrow spheres of their mercantile, industrial and professional concerns’.[liii] The point is that these are the spheres of accounting and management, and a continuation, impacted to a ‘certain extent’, now increasing. It is a matter of ‘degrees’:

The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. [liv]

This justly famous passage by Marx is to be updated with a ‘critique’[lv] that then becomes Stiegler’s description of the new:

Now a few years into this 21st century, which will be the century of nanotechnologies and which will see unheard of relations between technics, science and desire, the crucial question of what links and distinguishes power, knowledge and the will, i.e., the question of what can, at times, set these infinitives into oppositions, composing them at the same time, by posing them together, this question which, more profoundly and par excellence is the problem of thought and its ass’s skin – as though it diagrammed the mechanism of that stupidity Deleuze called “transcendental” – this question is a problem for us, so much so as to appear to have become unthinkable.[lvi]

Stiegler uses the term ‘mnemotechnical retention’ to refer to the ways memory and experience are exteriorized. This ‘tertiary’ layer of retention exists as material culture into which we are born, into a world not of our own making so to speak, though as the exteriorization and spatialization of individual time becoming collective time, ‘tertiary retention is an original exteriorization of mind’.[lvii] Buildings and writing systems, languages and machines, and the industrial revolution can all be understood in these terms. In Stiegler’s argument the gestures that are, in these systems, increasingly reproduced as tertiary retention are either discretized or subject to grammatization – and this is ‘the process of proletarianization described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto’.[lviii]

It is Stiegler’s view that new retention technologies, like audio-visual recording, unavailable to Marx, constitute new forms of proletarianization.

I am convinced that this is important, but think we should ask if Marx did not already anticipate this, as well as whether this over-values the ‘new’ in new media. We should, instead, ask where the place of agency resides in front of machines, including television, but also education, and ‘psychotechnology’, and whether, perhaps, the ‘proletariat’ might be less atomized than here implied, and also more or less still caught up in a struggle with the market. Stiegler rightly warns that the ‘shameful’ charge of economism should not mean the political must be purged of economic questions, nor should it mean the economic can be ignored in philosophy, nor that urgent questioning be left merely to some ‘obsessive relation’ of erudite devotion to philosophical economic texts of the past – let us not be too attached to new culturalist texts also. The economic interests of the new media domains might also be subject to some older economic questions. The economies of the market and the industrial imperative that compels all to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, and thus that which ‘sinks’ more and more of social life into the proletariat, might be relevant once again.

As a counter charge to ‘economism’, we might also wonder if the constant recourse to a largely uncritical fascination with new media isn’t also a mirror image of such economism, this time as capitulation to the techno-consumerist agenda of the gadget corporations. An obsessive relation to the technologies of inscription that have seemingly ubiquitous sway. There is room to question the imperative built into talk of adoption as a family drama. Again agency or the political in terms of collective organisation and resistance needs to be thought together with technology (retentions) and economics. This is where it is interesting to hear Derrida ask the mock-serious question: what if [mummy-daddy] Freud had email? He suggests that this would change everything, that ‘above all, email’ transforms ‘the entire public and private space of humanity’.[lix] Well, what if Marx had WordPress, access to CCTV, Skype and Ebay? Wasn’t it Marx who said, with Engels, that bourgeois capital offers ‘rapid improvement of all instruments of production’ and ‘immensely facilitated means of communication’.[lx]  The translation of immensely facilitated from the German ‘unehrlichen Ehrfarung[lxi] might be better rendered not as ‘infinite release’ if we take into account that Marx has in mind not only communications in the sense of letters and telegraph, but a ‘feverish velocity’ or ‘fieberhaften Geschwindigkeit’,[lxii] of communication as transport and transportation by way of ‘a system of river steamers, railways, ocean steamers and telegraphs’ that goes beyond anything the manufacturing era could imagine.[lxiii]

So, of course we should think not just of writing machines, but it seems quite late in the day to be catching up with the realization that writing orders the possible. Nevertheless, Stiegler sees through words:

I call “grammatization” the process whereby the flux and flow networking our existences become discreet elements: writing is thus, as the breaking into discreet elements of the flux of speech (let us invent the word “discretization” for this possibility), a stage in grammatization. Now, the process of grammatization, with the dawn of the industrial revolution, suddenly surpasses the sphere of language – one wants to say that the same thing happened to the sphere of logos – and invades the sphere of the body: first and foremost, the gestures of workers, which are discredited, devalued in view of their automatic reproduction – while at the same time the machines and apparatuses of reproducibilities of the visible and the audible appear on the scene.[lxiv]

Writing here feeds off proletarianization in so far as this is the process by which skills and ways of doing things are transformed by technological developments, for example, with the onset of automated writing tools the skill of handwriting recedes into a past, just as is likely the skill of typing will cede way to voice recognition – and the carpel tunnel syndrome I have developed upon using my Ipad only hastens this evolution. Indeed, carpel tunnel is an indication of the future in the same way that sore feet might have been a consequence of the loss of hunting grounds and the sedentarization of agricultural society. This is a pretty lame routine and the General Intellect is retentional in a more profound way. [lxv] The planned farming day is a grammatization of the walk-all-day lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer nomad – scaling up from this gets us to market to market (jiggidy jig) and soon after industrial and neo-liberal capitalism.




Composite Worker

The key point here is that it is not the – fetishized, digital – convergence of things that matters so much as the convergence – as proletarianized labour powers – of people. Long ago Marx had already noted that industrial capital colonizes the brain. His work on cooperation stands as evidence. In chapter 16 of Capital Volume 1, Marx makes a distinction between productive labour and ‘subordinate functions’ that should give educationalists pause:

a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation.[lxvi]

This is crucial for discussion of the ‘teaching factory’, where academics add capacity and help reproduce the productive labourers of the future (their students), while oftentimes also producing a ‘surplus’ through fees, consultancy, research contracts and the like. This opens a set of strategic problems in need of close examination, since the narrative here is never innocent – and again I write in a context where massive funding cuts to the University sector join the raft of general neo-liberal cutbacks across the sectors. The wider point, however, is that Marx is making no strict distinction between manual labour and brain labour, between ‘head and hand’. It is ‘the co-operative character of the labour process’ that turns the labourer into an ‘organ of the collective labourer, and to perform one of its subordinate functions.[lxvii] Stiegler’s talk of grammatization is the continuation of the process that entails loss of knowledge and know-how that are today transformed into ‘technologies and industry’ via the ‘cognitive relational and cultural technologies’[lxviii] under what he calls ‘hypersynchronized’[lxix] and ‘hyper industrial capitalism’.[lxx] This is a refined case of where Marx writes: ‘the means of production are … changed into means for the absorption of the labour of others. It is no longer the worker who employs the means of production, but the means of production that employ the worker’.[lxxi] Proletarianization at the level of simple division of labour is only step one of the development of a systematic alienation, as elaborated also by Marx in the latter chapters of Capital. Stiegler announces,

this grammatization of all the aspects of the human behaviour (intellection, motor functions and perception) leads to what is known today as cognitive capitalism. [And that] …this cognitive capitalism is also a cultural capitalism, which I have analysed elsewhere as a hyperindustrial cognitive capitalism.[lxxii]

Here, I am not sure we have moved much further than chapter 25 of Capital. The machines work us, they employ us – they think us too. And with a hint at another important aspect of Marx’s commentary on proletarianization, this implies a conscious struggle. Where Marx writes that ‘the worker exists to satisfy the need of the existing values for valourization’, an alternative possibility would have ‘objective wealth’ made to ‘satisfy the worker’s own need for development’ and this is then articulated in terms of head and hand. Echoing Feuerbach, Marx writes ‘just as man [sic] is governed, in religion, by the products of his[her] own brain, so, in capitalist production, [s]he is governed by the products of [her] his own hand’.[lxxiii] It is here in the intersection of Stiegler and Marx that there might be reason to work again at the writing machine that renders proletariatization into prose.

In this domain, un-thinking must be challenged as discretization infects even the way we un-think education, training, preparation for work, television, entertainment, family play, reproduction – all parts of life subsumed under commoditization. Thinking of the teaching factory, we might here also wonder at the role of academic and other written modalities of surveillance and administration. The intellectual mechanization that is reduced to governmentality, the management of work and non-work – the lumpenproletariat, the reserve army of labour – the training programs and reproduction are also the alienated provenance of this separation of mind and hand. A vast integrated convoluted cognitive machinery, of which the culture industry is not merely a covering apparatus and component. Training and shopping and recorded music: never co-constituted in alienated thinking; never components of a co-operative grammar, to come….

Is it unthinkable to undo this nexus of head and hand, finger and dial, university and state, intellect and war, scholarship and capital? Stiegler has opened up a possible avenue of inquiry that tackles such problems, and where we are capable of noting also that attention marketing requires complicit academic agents, this is of course a dangerous – pharmaka – terrain. Attention-marketing requires product review, exclusivity/exclusion and an undisclosed delusional god-complex that would have the critical critic declared as the only one able to see the proclamations of self-awareness that would not reflect on institutional or industry positioning. Stiegler can hardly be said to ignore the escalating context that would link the family and play to the school and training, to the cultural industries and to the global financial markets, but, although implicit, it seems such connections are not consistently or explicitly related to Marx and Engels’ still wider notion of proletarianization as conscious struggle. Nevertheless, he does underline the connection where the financial or marketized context is one in which:

our existences are now deeply implicated in networks of specialized technolological information of which we are largely (unavoidably?) ignorant, yet which force us to delegate our futures to the firms and agencies that then delegate them to markets. This is the context in which the service economy “produces” dissociation – the destruction of associational media through development of psychotechnologies eradicating psychic and social faculties (particularly attention), replacing them with automata stripped of any reinteriorization process; that is, without critique, and thus without responsibility.[lxxiv]



To change the tone of this narrative somewhat, this penultimate section explores more explicit biographical and political investments in time. The move to consider attention marketing emerges, I argue, from autobiographical-theoretical thinking in Stiegler’s shortest book, Acting Out. Stiegler describes his experience of incarceration in prison in curious terms: incarceration entailed a separation from the world that allowed him to contemplate his milieu ‘as does a flying fish, above his element’.[lxxv] Certainly not your average jailbird, Stiegler plunged into a philosophical menagerie, with only animals for company. Elsewhere he talks of a ‘flock of parrots’, meaning those who ‘ape’ the chatter of digital ideology.[lxxvi] When he writes of the radio, television, internet and audiovisual electronic technologies that engender repetitive behaviour, this is a ‘herd’ in Nietzsche’s sense[lxxvii] or ‘becoming herdish’.[lxxviii] And throughout Technics and Time there is an eagle picking away at Prometheus’ liver, ticking away the recurrent hours.[lxxix]

Animals and time become interesting when Stiegler suggests that the crisis of capitalism is a collapse that occurs through short termism, with the time of knowledge and of investment erased, and proletarianization of retention meaning an extensive loss of knowledge. Capital is ‘a dynamic system threatened by a limit that would be reached if the bearish tendency to which the very functioning of the profit rate gives rise were to achieve completion’.[lxxx] These are not bears asleep in caves, but rather short-term rogue traders – metaphorically beastly animals roaming the financial woods, only occasionally in hibernation. But every time the bear appears Stiegler also tends to tell us about something of which Marx was ‘unaware’[lxxxi] – in this case marketing, but in others it is always a new and unforeseen response of capital in America and so forth. For Stiegler, the proletarianized consumer’s libidinal energy is a new energy that Marx could not anticipate, even where Marx discusses consumption as productive.[lxxxii] For Stiegler the capitalist system is bearish or fictitiously speculative, and Marx failed to take this ‘fully into account’.[lxxxiii] The key to Stiegler’s thinking here is that the rate of profit no longer has to do with a credit crisis, but is rather the consequence of a culture of corruption, where capital becomes ‘Mafia-esque’ and a dominant, and Freud-esque, ‘consumption-drive’ is no longer to be understood in relation to the equation P equals surplus over constant and variable cost of production, that is ‘a profit that no longer bears any relation to the profit rate calculated by…’ Marx.[lxxxiv] This form of capitalism ‘cannot be thought with Marxist concepts alone’.[lxxxv] The new economy associates the present milieu of capitalism with a stupidity that is the proletarianization of the nervous system.

Stiegler’s discussion of stupidity is key to his understanding of the contemporary psychotechnological predicament and gives an insight into what is at stake in the parameters he sets. There are three questions he poses in the ‘battle for intelligence’:

The first

requires asking oneself about the intelligence that is required to ask about intelligence.

The second consists of knowing why it is necessary to engage in the battle for intelligence.

The third and last requirement for any contemporary battle of and for intelligence in the struggle of and with technologies of intelligence, in which psychotechnologies that might produce stupidity by destroying attention transform into the technologies of an individual and collective intelligence whose aim is to constitute a social (political) apparatus for unifying all social apparatuses, the economic, juridicial, educational, scientific, artistic and cultural (as well as the medical) and those focusing on society’s protection, such as internal and external security, and so on.[lxxxvi]

The last of these is not expressed as a question so much as a problem area, but the iteration is particularly interesting – the repetition of ‘of and for’, ‘of and with’ and the list and commas and after the clause, ‘and so on’. It might be suggested that this cascade indicates a point of tension, and this precisely in relation to security, society’s protection, which is also to say, in contemporary terms, the consequences of the war of terror. Or might we say, the war ‘of and for, of and with, and, and’ terror.

We are not, however, talking here of the kind of political mobilization Marx and Engels had in mind. Cretinization and an ‘auto-cretinizing’ of social life produced by the unregulated power of the media monopolies is, strangely, ‘also and indeed first of all a question of the responsibility of our political representatives, above all those who are not simply political representatives but have executive power’.[lxxxvii] Stiegler then calls upon Sarkozy. The problem is not the mute leadership, which is of course in the pay of capital as the executive class of the bourgeoisie, any more than it is the irresponsibility of allegedly patronising intellectuals who think that the masses are no more than dupes, while being equally duped by the trappings of power themselves. Again, ‘the misuse of psychotechnologies can have catastrophic effects on juvenile consciousness. Our political representatives, particularly those in power, are thus faced with exceptional responsibilities’.[lxxxviii] Disregarding any ‘cognitive overflow syndrome’ or attention deficit, Stiegler then again calls upon Sarkozy, this time alongside Al Gore, to fight against psychopower.[lxxxix]

It is here that psychopower is to be placed ‘under constraints’,[xc] yet these constraints remain quite abstract. I would say this tends towards impotence when Stiegler suggests that the ‘surrender to machines’ leads to a ‘short-circuiting of psychosocial transindividuation – of the generations as well as social classes and territory’.[xci] It is always dangerous to locate problems in the mixed metaphors of cartography and show jumping, but Stiegler does not think it impossible to ‘correct our course’ even if ‘many obstacles stand in our way: in the first place, a veritable conspiracy of imbeciles’ which is also a ‘conspiracy of inattention’.[xcii] This correction, which is a ‘weighty task’ and ‘par excellence today’s political responsibility’ is something that ‘belongs firstly to those whom one calls “intellectuals” … thinkers, savants, artists, philosophers’.[xciii]

It may seem stupid to refuse to concede, but as teaching – from cradle, to school, to factory or office – is about paying attention, endlessly, might it not be worth the experimental suggestion that there could be another kind of organization and another kind of time? Let us take our time with this. A non-clock time that tampered with the expectations of clockwork and machines, and thereby with attention, might at least not be so quick to make the equation of long-circuit as good, short-circuit as bad. For Stiegler, time ‘is completely singular’ and with television ‘one actually has the feeling that it is impossible to stop’.[xciv] The eagle pecking daily at Prometheus’s liver is the carrion beast of clock regulation. As has often been pointed out, the clock has been a device used to trick workers into conceding their labour power, and now we can see also their ‘brain time’, to the capitalist for less than its value. Against this is the intentionally stupid insistence that it might be possible to imagine that there are many and multiple nows, simultaneous short-circuits and long-circuits, multiplying, sometimes good, sometimes bad. This may even be called dialectics – co-constituting and interactive, perhaps sometimes interchangeable, or reversible, circuits of time, and we – as subjectivities, trans-individuations of individual workers – are unable to access this abundance of time except as unthinkable, counterfactual, delinquent provocation. We perhaps approximate this thinking in the mad chaos of co-operation, and even in solidarity – workers of the world unite! – or perhaps in the planned economy or in hope for the future. Whatever the case, we do not yet think this together, as Marx, I think, suggests we do.

It should be clear I think that Marx, in Capital Volume 2,[xcv] is on a somewhat different track than Stiegler, in that he thinks multiple times of circulation and simultaneous circuits – many and multiple circuits – of capitalism – not just production, circulation and consumption, as these too are a multiple dialectic. His cognition is transindividual for sure, but as an internationalist, systemic and multi-located, integrated, uneven, complicated, diversified in unity, thinking of the world – where I am not separate, but connected, through choice, even if I cannot grasp this as yet. It is just here we might try to think – from now – that which links and distinguishes a political struggle over power, knowledge and will.

Is Stiegler more worried about time than he should be? Taking care would require long-circuits of attention such as that which Dan Ross usefully illustrates with reference to the formation of taste as opposed to the satisfaction of hunger.[xcvi] The trouble is that this entails a polarization of hunger and taste appreciation that may not stand up in practice. The forms of labour that prevail in contemporary capitalism are many and varied, often mediated no doubt, and variously subject to interruption, relay and redoublings. What can be asserted is that there is now a trend towards more diverse forms of family, community and association than could be known in the bourgeois European family of nineteenth century industrial Britain, and probably this is a good thing. But I am not sure that the circuits here are thought through as carefully as they might be.

Let this be made clear: for Stiegler, a long-circuit means the use of technical prostheses to produce transindividual knowledge and desire, whereas short-circuit refers to the passive fulfillment of drives such as vigilance.[xcvii] There is no guarantee that long or deep attention doesn’t also hand us over to convergence and hyper synchronized grammatical microtechnology. If proletarianization extends to all, not just the working class, because consumption became a necessary component of cultural control – as Adorno understood – so as to respond to contradictions in capital – that Marx did not understand, says Stiegler – and this today threatens destruction, then we are in trouble if only ‘intellectuals’ can save us with long division. I am concerned that the anxiety expressed in the face of a consumerist, and indeed the theorist’s, scramble to respond to the convergence of new media has elevated a conception of reproduction of memory and meaning, located and alienated in technologies of tertiary retention, while relegating possibilities that do not rely upon calling on Sarkozy or ‘intellectuals’ for political representation. There is a question here – ‘impotence’[xcviii] – that renders the scene decadent when perhaps we should look more closely at the kind of family and convergence we might want to adopt or which is to hand, in Heidegger’s sense. For example, Stiegler does not address reproductive labour, or cohesive work for moral(ity), community or nation, insofar as these too are collective efforts and many timed narrations. The rather undifferentiated concept of the long-circuit does not do enough to get at this. Long and durable ‘duration’ replaced by the new means a loss that it would be tempting to caricature as a fear of senile very late capitalism: queuing for Medicare and pensions while the shaking invisible hand of the market grips the virtual zimmer frame of instability. Can a more nuanced model of time, labour and technology be released on the back of Stiegler’s analysis?

There are several symptoms that indicate such – phrmacological – treatment in theoretical discussions within the academy. For example, the speed-hype that exercizes the likes of Paul Virilio[xcix] and Derrida;[c] let us call these acceleration-valourization theorists, and those that anticipate ‘cognitive overload’, a kind of fear of information-glut. Both positions line up alongside a somewhat senile cretinization that would merely gawk at the discombobulation of very late capitalism, continually checking to see if it has its bus-pass, if its papers are in order, if it has not lost its keys or left the gas on – there is a suggestion in all this that the mode of production now passing is a permanent state of decay in those that would hang on for grim death should be prised off the handle – or steering wheel, rudder, or anchor?. Does it not sound like anxiety about youth when we read ‘the central question for the media world’ is now that of ‘control of youth’s psychic and social apparatuses from the youngest age, despite its destruction of the intergenerational circuitry’?[ci]

For a New Critique.


The work of forming attention undertaken by the family, the school, the totality of teaching and cultural institutions, and all the apparatuses of “spiritual value” (beginning with academic apparatuses) is systematically undone by the effort to produce a consumer stripped of the ability to be autonomous either morally or cognitively – to have consciousness as free will, without which there can be no “science” that is not ruinous. – Bernard Stiegler[cii]

Stiegler’s ruination is located in the schools and the family but these spaces are not thought through in terms of the politics of proletarianization as conceived by Marx to stem from the ‘sinking’ of more and more workers into the wage relation, and even – we have work to do here to address an imbalance – reproductive labour that itself becomes proletarianized. It is certainly the case that the production of consumers is at play here, but a survey might find forms of proletarian work that might still need attention – sex work, cleaning, bringing up children: all industrialized in the service and affective economy.[ciii]  Reproduction, community, morality and citizenship are four key areas of contribution to long-term social and productive life that remain largely outside the calculus of waged labour. That these areas of contribution are made over time and rendered increasingly visible through attachments to commodities is no surprise. The washing machine or cooker, the clothing or songs of an ethnic identity, even where hybridized, the daily newspaper or a bookshelf full of improving literature or a valid passport with visa entry stamp are all calculable commodity forms, the disciplining of life through a monetarization that we cannot not want acknowledged. As Stiegler writes,

there is nothing inevitable requiring that time (attention) be captured and monopolized in young brains by marketing, nor that this process should result in the systematic deprivation of consciousness, to the point that it might become literally impossible to (re)educate those organologically conditioned brains that have become prone to incivility or delinquency. Nor is it inevitable that older brains, subject to the same conditions, should find themselves deprived of all responsibility; that is, of their capacity to oppose such conditions.[civ]

This is why the discussion of education was important. Stiegler does not think it impossible to imagine ‘an alternative model’ where the ‘tools required for a life in hyperindustrial societies’ might emerge via an ‘appropriate [adoptive] education system’ – though he notes that this ‘might be a utopian vision … completing the process of what I have called generalized proletarianization’.[cv]

There is the possibility of going further here, to proletarianize it all, and taking up Marx’s nuanced consideration of proletarianization in a wider sense, suggesting that what is called incivility and delinquency are indeed the opposition, or at least a part of, and beginning of, an organized resistance to that which would reduce all of life to marketing controls. Consider all the ways the family, nation, migration, economy – privatized, end of welfare, education – utilitarian, commoditized – and war, including urban security and terror anxiety, have transformed the space of bourgeois society since the advent of neoliberal capitalism. With the public debate, such as it is, focused on parenting and a decline of respect for old family values, in Britain at least, then a Marxist interpretation of the present crisis should not stop with a diagnosis of ruin. The recognition of delinquency and incivility are not enough, and we may need rather more delinquents, and considerable civil unrest, before a revolutionary call to attention gains ground. The danger of the attention-capture diagnosis of the ‘current politics’ renders the masses passive too readily and ignores the Marxist content of proletarianization as originally set out by Marx and Engels: the advent of a political struggle on the way towards a new world where ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[cvi]

So when Stiegler calls for a new critique of political economy, as we have seen, he does this with a judgemental and simple notion of time and without a concept of praxis or revolutionary party activism. In Technics and Time, Taking Care, For a New Critique of Political Economy and The Decadence of Industrial Democracies at least, he has very little to say about class or social conflict, nor ventures any effort to understand how class composition must be updated in ways that can also learn for Marx and the notion of the General Intellect which already maps out the composite worker. Stiegler’s impressively nuanced analysis of digital retention shows how writing is part of the new composite class formation of a ‘new’ proletariat who are also media literate. Here where universal education was the nineteenth Century deal, we are now collectivized through gadgets. But there is no appreciation of how the proletarianized consumer must and does confront these gadgets as machines also in class terms.

Stiegler and Ars Industrialis update the notion of proletarianization for contemporary times but in doing so they underplay the two key dimensions of Marx and Engels’ conception that follow on from step one. In focussing on loss of skill and knowledge, ceded to the televisual and information systems, the immiseration that results from ‘sinking’ into the exploitation of waged labour – nowadays also brain-labour – and the mobilizations resultant from such abjection are minimized or ignored. In this context, the stupidity of delinquents is condemned and childishness, bearishness misconstrued. Does Stiegler not see that stupidity too can be pharmacological? The point is that Marx’s notion of proletarianization has three components and very often the third is left aside in the too hard basket. The work of labour that creates community – transindividuation, is also done in mediated form and perhaps even through ruinous modes of engagement with media and work formats. The immediate circuits may involve unpaid labour, brain-power, attention or being often captured, often exploited, often disassociated, but is also often expended in exuberant, rampant, excessive and – is it so unthinkable – proto-revolutionary ways. Mao said of the ‘riff raff’ that those who say the revolting peasants go too far when they band together to destroy the bourgeoisie do not share his view. He praises their action in the circumstances, and will not criticize them by muttering ‘it is terrible’, as so many others do.[cvii].

Stiegler’s argument is that the televisual system captures the attention of youth and destroys the long-circuit of care of family and education. It is certainly true that transformations are underway, but it may be that we need to think of the durations of transformation with an understanding of time, engagement and politics that offers a still longer conception of duration, or a multiple and non-linear notion of time. There may be concurrent longer-circuits of class composition that are relevant here, or even multiple-circuits of engagement and transformation that can be more subtly evaluated – as not necessarily ‘too bad’ or ‘all good’. Stiegler does open up these directions even where he does not follow the Marx of volumes two and three of Capital and of The Poverty of Philosophy[cviii] which might extend his argument.

Marx’s thinking on the circuits of capital might suggest dialectical readings of several non-commensurate, simultaneous circuits of finance/credit, production and consumption – division one and division two, productive consumption, credit, the tendential decline – that could then be brought to the discussion of family and education to complicate our evaluations. If there are several possible long and short circuits of, for example, ruin, riff raff, or of televisual/cultural industry inattention, then capture is not the only or necessary or limiting consequence. We have seen this and know also that television can solicit deep attention, why not grant the possibility that these forms have a role in progressive political transformation as well?

Lenin, to pick an explicitly ‘delinquent’ case, argued that the Party had to use the most advanced modes of communication in making its struggle known.[cix] The Soviets need not only electrification and Pravda, but have to express the revolutionary project in whatever means are available, in order to both communicate through and transform these media. The revolutionary project is another form of care of course, with a longer circuit perhaps than family and educational institutions, but also aiming to transform these, to sublate the things that capitalism brings in ways that are not exploitative nor oppressive. The old mole grubs up again over long cycles, as Marx noted. Mao too wrote much on the care that the revolutionary army must take in its work with the mass peasantry,[cx] there is something here too to consider in terms of another circuit, an involvement in national and international communism that must itself be patient, especially, perhaps, with philosophy. These are however topics for a different paper.

* I thank Ben Roberts, Sophie Fuggle, Joanna Figiel, Lara Choksey, Inigo Wilkins, Camille Barbagallo, Heidi Hasbrouck, Alison Hulme and the anonymous New Formations readers for help on this text.

[i] Bernard Stiegler, ‘Within the limits of capitalism, economizing means taking care’, Ars Industrialis, – accessed 1 November 2010.

[ii] Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations Stanford, Stanford University Press, (2008) 2010, p.68.

[iii] Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective, Paris, Aubier, 1989

[iv] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto, Harmondsworth, Penguin, (1848) 1967, p62.

[v] Marx and Engels, ibid., p70.

[vi] Bernard Stiegler, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, Polity Press (2004) 2011, p4, 35 and 60.

[vii] Ars Industrialis, Manifesto 2010, accessed 31 October 2010, my italics.

[viii] Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, Cambridge, Polity, (1996) 2002.

[ix] Pierre Bourdieu and On Television, New York: New Press, (1996) 1998.

[x] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise, Stanford, Stanford University Press (2001) 2011, p133.

[xi] Stiegler, Decadence, op. cit., p8

[xii] Stiegler, Taking Care, op. cit., p72.

[xiii] Stiegler, Decadence p60

[xiv] Stiegler Taking Care, p93.

[xv] Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, Stanford, Stanford University Press, (2003) 2009, p70.

[xvi] Stiegler, Taking Care, p56.

[xvii] Ibid., p57.

[xviii] Ibid., p85.

[xix] Derrida and Stiegler, op. cit., p142

[xx] Stiegler, Taking Care, p19.

[xxi] Ibid., p34.

[xxii] Ibid., p212.

[xxiii] Ibid., pp180-191.

[xxiv] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1., Harmondsworth, Penguin, (1867) 1976, p929. Integument is a translation of hülle, the outer husk or membrane of, for example, a seed, that must split apart for the plant to grow. Or perhaps not quite a seed’s outer shell, but specifically the furry covered membrane which must part to let out none other than … Marx himself, who makes so much of the labour that goes into a coat.

[xxv] Stiegler, Decadence op. cit., p64.

[xxvi] Stiegler, Taking Care, p126.

[xxvii] Ibid., p15.

[xxviii] Stiegler, Technics and Time 3 op. cit., p135.

[xxix] Ibid., p135.

[xxx] Ibid., p136.

[xxxi] Ibid., p146.

[xxxii] Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge, Polity (2009) 2010, pp7-8.

[xxxiii] Although Stiegler does not use Marx’s word subsumption, he offers a related analysis as part of his ‘new critique’. On subsumption see Marx Capital Vol.1, op.cit., pp1019-1045.

[xxxiv] Stiegler, Taking Care, p128.

[xxxv] Ibid., p38.

[xxxvi] David Fincher (director) The Social Network USA. 2010.

[xxxvii] Stiegler, Technics and Time 3,p146. Stiegler’s emphasis.

[xxxviii] Stiegler Taking Care, p52.

[xxxix] Ibid., p53.

[xl] RTFM = ‘read the fucking manual’, thanks to Steve Nugent.

[xli] Stiegler, Technics and Time 3, p150.

[xlii] Ibid., p151. I have made a critique of speed hype in the Derrida chapters of my Bad Marxism: Capitalism and Cultural Studies, London, Pluto Press, 2004.

[xliii] Ibid., p150.

[xliv] Ibid., p149.

[xlv] Ibid., p147. Stiegler’s emphasis.

[xlvi] Stiegler, Taking Care, p60.

[xlvii] Ibid., p53.

[xlviii] Stiegler, Decadence, p47.

[xlix] Stiegler, Taking Care, p58.

[l] Marx and Engels, Manifesto, p87.

[li] Stiegler, Taking Care, p38.

[lii] Stiegler, Technics and Time 3., p85. Stiegler’s emphasis

[liii] Karl Marx The New-York Daily Tribune, 21 October 1861.

[liv] Karl Marx Grundrisse, accessed 5 December 2008).

[lv] Stiegler, Decadence., p41.

[lvi] Bernard Stiegler, ‘Nanomutations, Hypomnemata and Grammatization’ from – accessed 5 November 2010.

[lvii] Bernard Stiegler For a New Critique, p9.

[lviii] Ibid., p11.

[lix] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, (1995) 1996, p17.

[lx] Marx and Engels, Manifesto, op. cit., p84.

[lxi] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifest Der Kommunistischen Partei, Berlin, Dietz Verlag, (1848) 1970, p47.

[lxii] Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erste Band, Berlin, Dietz Verlag (1867) 1975, p405.

[lxiii] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, op. cit., p506.

[lxiv] Stiegler, ‘Nanomutations’ op. cit.

[lxv] The smart money might want to be placed on a technological integration of voice box and computational interface, bypassing writing by hand, typing and even vocalization and diction. This must be experienced as a loss, just as was relative weightlessness when the first amphibians emerged from the buoyant three dimensionality of the sea onto a gravity-heavy cartography (it is birds who refused to accept this loss, and dolphins perhaps berate us for leaving).

[lxvi] Marx, Capital Vol.1, p644.

[lxvii] Ibid., p643-4.

[lxviii] Stiegler, Decadence, p22.

[lxix] Ibid., p23.

[lxx] Ibid., p130.

[lxxi] Marx, Capital., p425.

[lxxii] Bernard Stiegler, ‘Individuation, hypomnemata and grammatization’ – accessed 5 November 2010

[lxxiii] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, p772. A hilarious footnote here has Marx quoting Von Thünen asking how the worker had moved from ‘being the master of capital – as its creator – to its slave’. Marx says it is to Von Thünen’s credit that he asks the question, but that his ‘answer is simply childish’.

[lxxiv] Stiegler, Taking Care, p134.

[lxxv] Stiegler, Acting Out, p15.

[lxxvi] Stiegler, Decadence, p5.

[lxxvii] Stiegler, Acting Out, p48., my italics.

[lxxviii] Stiegler, Decadence. P53, 56.

[lxxix] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford:, Stanford University Press, (1994) 1998, p202.

[lxxx] Stiegler, For a New Critique, op. cit., p75, my italic.

[lxxxi] Ibid., p88.

[lxxxii] Stiegler, Decadence, p64.

[lxxxiii] Stiegler, For a New Critique, p89.

[lxxxiv] Ibid p92.

[lxxxv] Ibid., p87.

[lxxxvi] Stiegler, Taking Care, pp30-31.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., p90.

[lxxxviii] Ibid., p190.

[lxxxix] Ibid., p191.

[xc] Ibid., p191.

[xci] Ibid., p152.

[xcii] Ibid., p87.

[xciii] Stiegler, Decadence,  p145.

[xciv] Stiegler, in Derrida and Stiegler, op. cit., p88-9.

[xcv] Karl Marx, Capital Volume 2, Moscow, Progress Publishers, (1893) 1956.

[xcvi] Dan Ross, ‘Politics and Aesthetics, or, Transformations of Aristotle in Bernard Stiegler’ Transformations, 17, (2010), 3.

[xcvii] I thank Inigo Wilkins for helping me clarify this distinction, though I think the clarification reduces and polarizes. Bernard Stiegler himself has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths for the past three years, and his visits occasioned much engaged discussion of his work.

[xcviii] Stiegler, Decadence, p60.

[xcix] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, New York, Semiotext(e), 1977.

[c] Derrida, Archive Fever, op. cit.

[ci] Stiegler, Taking Care, p132.

[cii] Ibid., p184.

[ciii] What is difficult here is that the theoretical charge that offers a focus upon service and affect (trinketization) both recognizes that this alienation into objects and objectification of relations is damaging, but also necessarily wishes to calculate the unpaid work entailed, thus aiding marketization. It wants to both condemn reduction to a calculus and applaud. Crucial here for me is the work of comrade Camille Barbagallo from the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths and her forthcoming PhD from the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University, London.

[civ] Stiegler, Taking Care, p35, my italics.

[cv] Ibid., p97.

[cvi] Marx and Engels, ibid., p70.

[cvii] Mao Tse-Tung ‘The Movement of the Riff Raff’, Selected Works Volume 1, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1975, pp29-30

[cviii] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, (1847) 1955.

[cix] Of course I do not think Lenin is delinquent in any way that should be condemned, Vladimir I. Lenin, ‘Party Organisation and Party Literature’ in Collected Works Volume 10, Moscow, Progress Publishers (1905) 1962, pp44-49.

[cx] Mao Tse-Tung ‘Serve the People’ Selected Works Volume 2, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, (1944) 1967, pp177-178.

Chapter 4. Martin Heidegger goes to the Movies .

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Music is a weapon of mass destruction” – ADF

Cinema and sound sync/mix technology seems to come and go in leaps and loops. Where once the screen image required accompaniment by a live performer at a piano, today, such a ‘throw back’ to the old black and white days of immediately present live sound is rare, even nostalgic. A calculated and curious staging renews our appreciation of the artifice of sync sound, although the piano is electric and the ‘live’ now requires mixing desks, digital precision, planned sequencing and programmed synthesisers. It requires all this, at least, in the case of recent performances over film by the drum and bass outfit Asian Dub Foundation (ADF), who have been filling cinema halls with new audiences for old films. I am impressed by this revival of a past format, and thinking about how this technology is used perhaps helps our understanding of the pursuit of innovative modes of political activism. So I want to approach this scene informed by a more nuanced notion of technology than is often required – taking my cue from an essay by Martin Heidegger, where technology is thought of as something more than mere instrumental tool. As culture crashes into the technological, I wonder what motivations might be heard when the echos of days gone by are radically reworked in this way.

ADF screen movies with intent. For several years they had used the 1995 Kassowitz film La Haine as a vehicle for a cinema-music experiment, where the story of three youths caught up in suburban unrest (which is itself largely off screen), in the suburbs of Paris, is presented in performance with a new live ADF soundtrack. This film has particular relevance given events in the Paris suburbs in November 2005[1], but I do not want to focus upon representation and the repetition ‘in the real’ of the events ‘in the film’. Rather, I am more interested here in the scene of the screening of a French film replayed in Britain, a film which itself is very much alert to the politics of representation, to the reverberation of screens, such that when shown in the UK it is meant to evoke parallels and differences in terms of race, suburban alienation, and the politics of the imagination, especially with regard to thinking about technology and terror.

La Haine begins with a Molotov cocktail, set across the background of a shot of the planet as seen from space. The incendiary device is falling, and spinning as it falls, towards the earth as pictured from afar. A voice recounts a story of someone who fell from a tall building, and as he passed each floor on the way down, he said aloud: ‘So far, so good, so far, so good’. Ash and Sanjay Sharma wrote perceptively on this film, suggesting that this ‘anxious repetition of assurance’ might be dubbed ‘the inner voice of liberal democracy’.[i] The Sharma brothers link this reassurance to the critical scene of the journalists visiting the suburbs only to be confronted as intruders by the youth, chased with their television cameras back to the safer boulevards. When the three youth themselves are stranded in the centre of the city, caught without tickets to the metro, they see reports from the ‘riots’ on a public multi-screen, and learn of the death of one of their comrades.

ADF want the film to provoke discussion. They screen it for new audiences and it is discussed in detail on the interactive activist/fan website that is part of the ADF Education Foundation (ADFED), itself an activist oriented youth politics forum. Workshops organised by ADFED included one by Sonia Mehta in 2003 involving Ash Sharma on the development of ADFED as a music technology training provider working with visual media and exploring the politics of sound[2]. Discussion within ADFED and on the ADF chat site is not uncritical. For example, the politics of screening action cinema as entertainment is measured against questions about the best ways to organise, and politicize, the music industry, organisations like Rich Mix (an arts centre and venue for music, cinema, performance and training with which ADFED is associated[ii]) and anti-racist campaigns. Concerns about street and police violence are aired and the testosterone-fuelled adventurism of the Paris uprisings are compared with events in the UK that echo those shown in La Haine. The film, as ADF intend, also articulates these concerns. The absence of women in the film is striking, but as the Sharma’s argue, the pathologizing of the suburbs is an old sociological, anthropological and Hollywood standard, where inner urban tradition demands alienation and decay, disaffection and lawlessness, reinforcing the racism, even as La Haine challenges these easy moves.[iii]

In 2002 ADF initiated similar concert-screenings of another film, this time the revolutionary cinematic extravaganza of The Battle of Algiers, directed in 1964 by Gillo Pontecorvo (scenario Franco Solinas, music by Ennio Morricone, won the Golden Lion Venice 1966,). This film tells the story of the clandestine resistance movement against the French occupation of Algeria and works well when screened for new audiences with a live ADF soundtrack. Bringing a new audience to an old film, a part of the third cinema movement, quite often overlooked by drum and bass fans, carries a powerful allegorical charge at a time when issues of colonial occupation – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon – are prominent in the media.

I am interested in what a British Asian music activist outfit, with a record of anti-racist, anti-imperialist organising, can achieve with the technology of sound and film as propaganda device. What does this tell us about activism, media, and the intended audience for ADF’s experiments at the movies? Some will of course say that the ADF update track for Battle of Algiers is no improvement upon Morricone’s score; some will quibble about the sanctity of creative work in the age of digital reproduction; some might suggest that ADF cash in with a radical pose, presenting themselves as advocates of any and every left cause going. It is of course possible to discuss these matters, but I think these are the wrong questions. To explain, I want to turn to a German philosopher who knew very little about this kind of drum and bass.

Martin Heidegger, were he to come down from his mountain retreat, might have us examine the way our thinking about technology hands us over to a calculated, and so compromised, entrapment. Concerned that we may ‘have ears only for the noise of media’,[iv] Heidegger makes a distinction, in a 1955 address in his home town, between calculative and meditative thought.[v] It is meditative thought that is lost in the modern world for Heidegger. Calculation well suits the opportunist mind-set of capitalism. He complains of those who ‘hourly and daily … are chained to radio and television’ and ‘week after week the movies carry them off into uncommon, but often merely common, realms of the imagination, and give the illusion of a world that is no world’. ‘…Picture magazines’ and ‘modern techniques of communication’ assail us.[vi]

No doubt the mid-20th Century philosopher would have thought ADF noisy, and that they were gratuitously given over to calculation (of record sales, of internet hits on their website). So far as I know, he expressed no position on Algeria or on Pontocorvo’s film, if he ever saw it. But nevertheless it might be interestingly provocative to ask if he would have approved of ADF’s attempt to get the youth to question, to ‘meditate’ (not at all in the yogic sense) upon questions of politics, violence, resistance, and on alternate ways of viewing the world. Battle of Algiers, in Pontocorvo’s third cinema way, was already a moment of consciousness raising, which ADF now update according to their want. ADF are not sentimental, and they are never in denial about the culture industry as a sapping vortex of commercialisation, but their engagement with the media cannot be described simply as an issue of chains or noise.

Given what we know (or think that we know[3])[vii]) of Heidegger’s declared politics, it may seem strange that I can imagine ADF at least agreeing with him when he says:

The power concealed in modern technology determines the relation of man to that which exists. It rules the whole earth. Indeed, already man is beginning to advance beyond the earth into outer space…gigantic sources of power have become known through the discovery of atomic energy.[viii]

Heidegger warns of a danger in calculative thinking’s triumph ‘in the sense that the approaching  tide of technological revolution in the Atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile … that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practised as the only way of thinking’ (Heidegger 1955/2003:93).

ADF would want to promote a revolutionary consciousness. I wonder if we can grant them the luxury of thinking so differently?

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) studied theology at Freiberg, Germany, in 1909, then switched to mathematics and philosophy, with a doctorate in philosophy 1913. After World War I, he became the assistant of the philosopher Edmund Husserl. He published Being and Time in 1927. He joined the National Socialist Workers Party in 1933 and was appointed Rector of Freiberg University that year – a post he held for a year and a half, giving several shameful pro-Hitler speeches. Disappointed that the Nazi’s did not turn out to be the future of Germany, he did not however hand in his party card… After the war, he was banned from university teaching for a number of years.[4] ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ was first given as a talk in 1949 and expanded in 1954. ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ was first given as a talk in 1949 and expanded in 1954. In this essay, Heidegger advocates a questioning that concerns itself with technology in a particular, political, way. Since we are not free, but are caught in a mode of thinking where we are mostly unable to think in any other than a calculative way about technology, Heidegger takes great pains to explain his way of questioning concerning technology. He will work through various ideas – cause, bringing forth, revealing, enframing, standing reserve and clearing – to prepare the possibility of escaping from the dangerous trap of conventional thoughts about technology. To do this he first goes back to Greeks to think about the meaning of words, not about the technological. Here, as ever, Heidegger teaches etymologies like no other – he asks us to think of verstehen, understanding, knowledge. To properly think this he asks that we look at assumptions; for example about how we think of technology as an activity; as a way of doing something; and as means to an end – as an instrumental thing that we try to control, and how our attempts to control technology as a tool keeps us still firmly in the grip of unexamined instrumentalism. For Heidegger, it is a first step of questioning (itself seemingly a kind of technology) that we need to examine our assumptions in a rigorous way, and he does so through an examination of the roots of the notion of cause. There is a long exploration of Greek and Latin terms, and of the creative intentionality that lies behind bringing something or causing something to be. The discussion moves from how we get things done, through consideration of cause as bringing forth, to a notion of the revealing, or the presence, of something. Then Heidegger offers a discussion of techne – as manufacturing technique and art (poeisis) – as a kind of know-how – the art of doing that brings something to presence.

In this essay, the former mathematics student and postal censor advocates a questioning that concerns itself with technology in a particular, political, way. This was not unrelated to his wartime experiences and what he called a subsequent ‘turning’ (not necessarily a reversal) in his thought where his effort became one to investigate technology in order to prepare us for a free relationship or orientation to technology as such. Since we are not free, but are caught in a mode of thinking where we are mostly unable to think in any other than a calculative way about technology, Heidegger takes great pains to explain his way of questioning concerning technology. He will work through various ideas – cause, bringing forth, revealing, enframing, standing reserve and path – to prepare the possibility of escaping from the dangerous trap of conventional thoughts about technology. To do this he first goes back to Greeks to think about the meaning of words, not about the technological. Here, as ever, Heidegger teaches etymologies like no other – he asks us to think of verstehen, understanding, knowledge. He asks that we look at assumptions; for example about how we think of technology as an activity; as a way of doing something; and as means to an end – as an instrumental thing that we try to control, and how our attempts to do so keep us in its grip. For Heidegger, it is a first step of questioning (itself seemingly a kind of techne) that we need to examine our assumptions in a rigorous way

Looking for parallels with the thinking behind the performances by ADF, I have in mind the ends of activism, including those more abstract ‘oppositional-creative’ aims of ADFED as educational foundation that reveal a kind of community activism and a politics itself. The built in radical charge of this makes me want to ask what might be added to our understanding of activism if this sort of evaluation and thinking were to become common practice?

Heidegger continues his analysis of technology through examination of the concept of cause, from the Latin ‘causa’, because technologies are of course human-made, they are brought about, therefore caused. Causa – from a verb meaning to fall or to bring about. In a classic Heideggerian move, he points out however, that the Latin translation causa is not quite faithful translation of the Greek word aition as used by Aristotle. Aition, unlike causa, contains the notion of being responsible for something else. I am particularly interested in responsibility here, but to leap forward to the responsibilities of activism in a globalised media world is to move too fast. Heidegger then, in a way I find surprising turns instead to religion, discusses a holy chalice, made by a silversmith – the chalice has a context of use, a substance, and a maker, who brings out (or is responsible for bringing out) its ‘chaliceness’. The being of the chalice is indebted (to these responsible) causes, but not in any simple way – aitai – Aristotle’s word, means to make present, to appear, to arrive, to reveal. [Myself, I would have preferred he used a book as example, or just a cup. Why chalice, why taunt the god-bothering types?]

So – hypothetical and experimental as it is – what if we bring forward this multifaceted, Heideggerian understanding of techne to Pontecorvo’s film, insofar as it is brought forth into the sometimes discordant, sometimes lyrical, but overall creative context of an ADF screening performance? Perhaps in this way we can better understand something about what ADF’s rendition of Battle of Algiers achieves. The event is never simply the cause of bringing about a critical anti-colonialist consciousness in the youth that are attracted to ADF performances. Ostensibly this would be one of the simple planned, even calculated, ends, but no-one would be so foolish as to think there is a one-to-one equivalence between planned intention and effect. Indeed, there is no simple or singular intention possible when an audience, by definition, comes from a wide range of disparate positions. There are plenty of debates about ethics and motivation, even inspiration, in the literature on propaganda, promotion and politics. There is much to be said for difference and for multiple modes of thinking. ADFED itself is a broad ‘church’, open to many, and ADF have long pointed out their wide ‘consciousness raising’ orientation and commitment to diversity.

Hence poeisis – which means bringing forth, in poetry, as in bringing forth truth. Creativity of technology, creativity in words (the book example would be fine here too). We have moved from how we get things done, through discussion of cause, to a notion of revealing of the truth or presence of something. Then Heidegger offers a discussion of techne – manufacturing technique and art (poeisis) – a kind of know-how – the art of doing that brings something to presence.

Perhaps what ADF and Heidegger share then is not just any kind of politics, nor any greater or lesser disguised evangelical mission, but a common push towards a more fundamental form of thinking; the realisation that a limit to thinking, a narrowing, is a baleful consequence of an unexamined attachment to the silver screen. The jangling soundtrack ADF provides for La Haine or The Battle of Algiers is intended to provoke a meditation, a rethinking. To resist what comes to presence in conventional everyday chit-chat versions of media consumption requires provocation if it is to open up any chance of radical thinking. Heidegger elsewhere is contemptuous of idle-talk and rumour as a substitute for thought, and in many ways I hear this idea resonating in ADF’s politically motivated use of film.

So, if we bring forward this understanding of techne to Pontecorvo’s film, insofar as it is brought forth into the sometimes discordant, sometimes lyrical, but overall creative context of an ADF screening performance, perhaps we can better understand something about what Battle of Algiers, as film, achieves.So, if we bring forward this multifaceted, Heideggerian understanding of techne to Pontecorvo’s film, insofar as it is brought forth into the sometimes discordant, sometimes lyrical, but overall creative context of an ADF screening performance, perhaps we can better understand something about what Battle of Algiers, as a film, achieves. The event is never simply the cause of bringing about a critical anti-colonialist consciousness in the youth that are attracted to ADF performances. Ostensibly this would be one of the simple planned, even calculated, ends, but no-one would be so stupid as to think there is a one-to-one equivalence between planned intention and effect. Indeed, there is no simple or singular intention possible when an audience, by definition, comes from a wide range of possible contexts. There are plenty of debates about ethics and motivation, even inspiration, in the literature on propaganda, promotion and politics. ADFED itself is a broad ‘church’ (to again invoke an out of place chalice metaphor), open to many, and ADF have long pointed out their wide ‘consciousness raising’ orientation.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that film itself, with added live music, is by and by an automatic consciousness raising tool. One particular story drives this point home. In 2002 it was reported that Pontocorvo’s film was to be screened (with the original score) at the Pentagon as an instructional text for the generals of the low intensity warfare operations unit, with the intention of aiding the generals in their thinking about how to win the war in Iraq, and how to deal with a militant insurgency without losing the ‘battle for hearts and minds’, as the French so clearly did in Algeria. It seems the generals watched less than carefully. The point is not to suggest only that any text – film, event – can be turned to any politics whatsoever (though I am sometimes convinced that all things can be recuperated and co-opted to do service for capital) but that what is required to achieve a radical thinking is something more than the conventions of calculative thought that usually belong to technology, especially technology in the hands of the generals bombing Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Perhaps what ADF and Heidegger share then is not any kind of politics, nor any greater or lesser disguised evangelical mission, but a common push towards a more fundamental form of thinking; the realisation that a limit to thinking, a narrowing, is a baleful consequence of an unexamined attachment to the silver screen. The jangling soundtrack ADF provides for La Haine or The Battle of Algiers is intended to provoke a meditation, a rethinking. To resist what comes to presence in conventional everyday chit-chat versions of media consumption requires provocation if it is to open up any chance of radical thinking. Heidegger elsewhere is contemptuous of idle-talk and rumour as a substitute for thought, and in many ways I hear this idea resonating in ADF’s politically motivated use of film.

It is here that things become complicated. Revealing – bringing forth – goes down a wrong path if we are in thrall to technology and do not question it. I do not want to simply say that the film is a technology, to be given over to a certain view and fixed, or simply that it is something to be interpreted by whatever group – ADF or the Pentagon – that wants to make use of it. Sure, the figure of Martin Heidegger is not unlike the film – the old Nazi philosopher can be provocative as material support for left and right wing ends – that is not the point, the point is to watch over the calculation machine and see where it leaves us; thinking or stuck.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that film itself, with added live music, is by and by an automatic consciousness raising tool. One particular story drives this point home. In 2002 it was reported that Pontocorvo’s film was to be screened (with the original score) at the Pentagon as an instructional text for the generals of the low intensity warfare operations unit, with the intention of aiding the generals in thinking about how to win the war in Iraq, and how to deal with a militant insurgency without losing the ‘battle for hearts and minds’, as the French so clearly did in Algeria. Clearly the generals watched less than carefully. The point is not to suggest only that any text – film, event – can be turned to any politics whatsoever (though I am not convinced that all things can be recuperated and co-opted to do service for capital) but that what is required to achieve a radical thinking is something more than the conventions of calculative thought that usually belong to technology, especially technology in the hands of the generals bombing Afghanistan and Iraq.

ADF use technology to make us think, not simply consume. In this, they are, I feel, an advance insofar as they do more than simply offer a critical note against colonialism, revealing some of the truths about colonial history; rather, revealing plus an activism that militates for critical thinking. It is no accident that ADF called an earlier EP Militant Science. They explain:

Whatever anyone says about ADF’s so called ‘political’ lyrics, no one would have taken any notice if it wasn’t for ADF’s sound and its inherent energy: ragga-jungle propulsion, indo-dub basslines, distorted sitar-like guitars and samples of more ‘traditional’ Asian sounds[5]

When Heidegger moves to the conclusion of his essay, he tries to clarify the relationship between two opposing orientations contained within what he calls Gestell or enframing, where enframing means something like a framework through which we look towards the world (we might remember here the opening scene in La Haine which pictures the world). Thus, for Heidegger, questioning concerning technology reveals both ordering and revealing as parts of our understanding of technology. But revealing is in danger and may be lost if questioning does not stay alert to this danger and in questioning provoke us to watch out for ways revealing might become limited to or reduced only to ordering. It is not enough to know the facts of Afghanistan, Iraq or Lebanon (indeed, the generals know so much more, and no doubt hide more, than the rest of us), the danger is in how knowing is used. What do the Generals do with their facts (their ‘intelligence, and counter-intelligence)? Clearly, knowledge is not neutral.

When ADF, by their efforts, enframe activism and resistance within the same screen format that houses the propaganda effort of the evening news, the pentagon private screenings and the third cinema aesthetic tradition, then can we be sure that a common instrumentalisation has not captured all perspectives?

When Heidegger moves to the conclusion of his essay, he will try to clarify the relationship between two opposing orientations contained within what he calls Gestell or enframing, where enframing means something like a framework through which we look towards the world. Thus, questioning concerning technology reveals both ordering and revealing but revealing is in danger and may be lost if questioning does not alert us to this danger and provokes us to watch out for the ways revealing might be limited to or reduced only to ordering. It is not enough to know the facts of Afghanistan or Iraq (indeed, the generals know so much more, and no doubt hide more, than the rest of us), the danger is in how knowing is used. What do the Generals do with their facts (their ‘intelligence, and counter-intelligence). Clearly, knowledge is not neutral.

Heidegger expresses his concern that humanity’s effort to ‘bring order to the globe’ is in vain so long as the language of what he calls ‘the pathway’ is not heard. But this is where Heidegger gets too rustic. Something that would be anathema to drum and bass militant rhythm scientists like ADF. Against the calculative, Heidegger would privilege crafts, and technologies like a water wheel that does not store up energy, does not dam the river (he learnt a river obsession from Holderin – see The Ister[ix]). This rustic sleepy village scenario is one that ADF abhor since it buys into the entire romantic pre-colonial fantasy that keeps three quarters of the world in underdevelopment. On their album Rafi’s Revenge, ADF offer a lyric that condemns those who imagine India remains a ‘mass of sleeping villages’ – as such imagery fixes the idea of India in a rustic nostalgia, automatically or naturally excluded form modern development; homogenised and historicised as a manifestation of a eurocentric past.

The mining industry might illustrate – the extraction of oil, the storing up and consumption of this energy, a massive industry – from the beginning turns the natural world into a resource, reveals it as resource… and we will see later this also colours our view of the world (of geopolitics, of ‘the international order’, even of tourism in terms of where its safe to go, where not) and of people. This turns the world, and all who live there, into objects of an instrumental calculation – a standing reserve – available for extraction, advantage, profit.

All of which raises the question of whether we can think outside this frame. Is it right to try to do so by going ‘back’ to techniques that do not store up and count? Can we think outside an instrumental mode, i.e. can we commit to a mode of thinking that does not calculate the world and us in it, in terms of use, that makes us and our world simply standing reserve, available, only in this way? The very possibility of asking this question is the critical hermeneutic. The danger would be that we confirm that we are merely standing reserve, and so we will be denied a more fundamental revealing of our world. We would instead be lost in worrying about control, controlling technology that gets out of control – but we would never have the critical perspective and possibility of thinking outside of the frame that would be needed to comprehend the essence of technology.

Thus, the technical capacity of the oil industry (physics, geology, environmental science combined) challenges the earth to provide energy. As standing reserve, this has become a power over us. As command, the command of technology has become a logos – a logic – that demands a world to come into existence. It is not a means to command the world but rather it commands the world to be in a certain way. It offers just one kind of revealing, although it is not clear that the very possibility of questioning like this doesn’t already open up another possible revealing.

The threat does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth[x]

In this way the world is contained by technology, and this entails danger. But if we are to reject the rustic pathway, this truth would be what? Would it be that technology, sound and film is not a necessary forever unidirectional or fixed, received wisdom, but can be tampered with by militant science, by a political consciousness that disrupts every received verity? Be it the sanctity of the original motion picture (those that criticised ADF for spoiling Pontercorvo’s film and displacing Morricone’s soundtrack) or be it the Leftist purists who would dare not use Heidegger to make an anti-colonial point, thus closing their ears to ideas in favour of blind narrowness.

Some of the critiques of the way ADF activism works in the field of representation address this Gestell. The technological (and infrastructural) support for this kind of cinematic event presents the world as a picture of resource extraction, a matter of calculation (of capacities, of yield, of export dollars and arms sales). It may be that our drive to calculate the world has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy build in so that the world comes to be (and only be) calculable, and only in the most brutal ways.

That Heidegger and ADF use questioning or noise to provoke us towards the possibility of thinking in a way not merely caught in repletion of our received and ordered enframing is all important. Maybe then we should feel uncomfortable, since the essence of technology shows us the (dangerous) way in which a technology, or technology in general, frames the world for us. Our responsibility will be to watch over this revealing so as to always seek – catch sight of – a more primordial revealing – of that which technology does, and that which we might do with technology, a soundtrack for instance. And so, to ask if questioning is enough may be the important question. The one that motivates a deeper thinking? It would not be wrong to ask if the danger of falling for enframing is greater than the physically existing lethal machines (for example: the industrialised killing machines of the atomic bomb and the gas chamber – those that Jean-Luc Nancy takes Heidegger to task about, since he mentions them in a kind of – unpublished aside and no more. Heidegger equates the extermination of the Jews with the mechanisation of farming, much to the surprise and dismay of many, including Nancy in The Ister).. Yet, is questioning enough? Is dancing in the aisles to Pontocorvo’s images of Algeria radical enough? In the face of the war of terror, what is?[xi]


Can we rethink this all again in the light of our concerns today? If we take those concerns to be, broadly, politics, media, activism.– a very brief look at the work of Bernard Stiegler is deserved:

What is Being now? Technological innovation does perhaps require us to re-evaluate how we imagine ourselves. The development of genetic science transforms life by raising questions about – and actually interfering in – DNA determination of identity and reproduction (of persons, and of plants). Medical breakthroughs permit organ transplants, in vitro birth, and soon, cloning and further extensions of life though prosthetics and bionics. Death too has been transformed though new drugs, new wars and new viral threats. Work, creativity and decision-making are now facilitated by machine. Even writing proceeds without pens, as I write with a stylus directly onto a screen, not to mention the impact of spell-check and format or grammar, or the possibility of instant publishing via website and blog. CGI in the realm of video destroys indexicality once and for all. There is much more about which we could go on, Bernard Stiegler makes a good effort at this in Technics and Time (1994/1498:86-87), with reservations, as we have seen.

But all these changes were already underway. We had only not recognised them as already at work from, so to speak, the very beginning.

[1] “On October 27th, Bouna and Zied died of electrical burns when they fled from the police. Riots broke out in Clichy-sous-Bois and other housing estates across France. This is the first time since May 1968 that there has been urban violence of this magnitude; it is also the first time that young people from the neighbourhoods have risen up together, realizing that they share a common fate. This fate can be summed up as having no future but unemployment, low-income housing, daily humiliation and police racism, a ghetto culture that makes us outcasts, but which on a certain level is also a source of pride, because it’s ours”

[3] The political activism of Heidegger as Nazi philosopher has been subject to much attention. Gossip and rumour abound regarding Heidegger’s relation to national socialism and the status of his 1933-4 period as Nazi Rector of Frieburg University. Lyotard (1988/1990), Derrida (1987/1989), Bourdieu (1988/1991) and others have commented on this ‘issue’, but the importance of Heidegger is evidenced not only in these specific interventions. For the most controversial journalistic reports, see Farias (1987/1989) and Wolin (1991). Speaking of Heidegger and the rerun of the ‘Nazi controversy’ occasioned by the publication of Victor Farias’ book Heidegger and Nazism, Derrida noted: “In certain newspapers and through a kind of rumour [my italics], one became aware of the violence of a condemnation. This condemnation claimed to teach, well beyond Nazism and Heidegger, the very reading of Heidegger, the readers of Heidegger, those who had referred to him – even if they had only asked deconstructive questions about him – still more those who were likely to take a continued interest him, even if it might be in order to judge and think, as rigorously as possible, Nazism and Heidegger’s relation to Nazism. The gravest and most obscurantist confusions were being maintained, sometimes naively, sometimes deliberately. It was, not only but also, rather evidently, a question of banning the reading of Heidegger” (Derrida 1995a:469).

[4] Yet he was incredibly influential. Michel Foucault says, perhaps mischievously, in an interview before he passed away: “I still have … the notes that I took when I was reading Heidegger. And they are much more extensive than the ones I took on Hegel or Marx. My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger” (Foucault 1988:250). Georgio Agamben suggests that “Like much of contemporary French philosophy, the thought of Derrida too has its basis, more or less openly declared, in that of Heidegger” (Agamben 1993:158). Spivak (1993c:34) makes a similar point when discussing power/knowledge in a way that reminds me of Heidegger’s concept of enframing – yet she wants to take some distance from suggestions of an “affinity” between Foucault’s ‘power’ and Heidegger’s ‘Being’ as found in commentaries by Dreyfuss (in Spivak 1993c:292). Heidegger, the ‘West’ and the coloniser, Spivak reminds us, should not be taken as monolithic homogeneities, and such lessons shake easy explanations as she reads “Foucault in Derrida in the wake of a reconsideration of Heidegger” (Spivak 1993c:45). Habermas also makes the point about the influence of Heidegger on ‘post-structuralism’, although in less generous terms.

[i] Sharma and Sharma 2000 ‘So far so good, so far so good… La Haine and the poetics of the everyday’, in Theory Culture and Society, 17(3):103-116, p105

[iii] Sharma and Sharma op cit p103

[iv] Heidegger, Martin 1949/2003, ‘The Pathway’ in Political Writings New York: Continuum p78

[v] Heidegger, Martin 1955/2003 ‘Discourse on Thinking’ in Political Writings p89.

[vi] Heidegger, Martin 1955/2003 ‘Discourse on Thinking’ p90

[vii] The political activism of Heidegger as Nazi philosopher has been subject to much attention. Gossip and rumour abound regarding his relation to national socialism and the status of his 1933-4 period as Nazi Rector of Freiburg University. For a recent commentary on this see Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe 1990 Heidegger, Art and Politics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

[viii] Heidegger 1955/2003 ‘Discourse on Thinking’ op cit p91-2

[ix] A film by Dan Ross and David Barison which deals with Heidegger’s 1942 lecture series on Holderin, with commentary from Bernard Stigler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Phillipe Lacouthe-Labarthe.

[x] Heidegger 1949/2003 ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ in Political Writings p 297.

[xi] Thanks are due to Sonja Grussendorf, Brianne Selman, Kevin Young and Tara Blake Wilson for help with keeping this piece in order.

Chapter 5 The Dialectic of Here and There: Politics ‘at Home’ and British Asian Communism

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

All through the commentary on politics and diaspora in Britain there seems to have by and large been a tendency for critics to ignore left wing political activity among South Asian settlers. This in itself is a part of a double repetition; a two-ply silencing of agency for an agency that poses no threat. Comics not communists. The lustrous career of South Asian communists active in the UK is however not to be romanticized and of course there were many more people not involved in class politics than can be registered in the annals of communist champions. But it is clear that the groundwork for many of the kinds of political positions taken for granted today were forged in adversity and struggle under scarlet flags. That this again means that not everyone is involved in left wing groups and causes today goes without saying, and again it should not need to be pointed out that an overly rosy view of the inheritance of South Asian politicals would be inappropriate and misguided (but all those slightly strange left wing uncles and aunties do have an influence). The point is that given the really existing conditions into which most South Asian youth are born in multi-racist Britain, and given the heritage to which they can, if they wish, lay claim, it should be no surprise that comprehension of the struggle is ‘imbibed as if with mothers milk’, as one informant described it to me. Why has scholarship singularly failed to register this?

Anthropology ‘at Home’


“labour in the white skin cannot be free if in the black it is branded” (Marx, 1867, p. 301)

In a short story collected in Where the Dance Is, Ambalavaner Sivanandan tells the tale of a meeting of a Marxist study group in a pub in Hampstead, probably sometime in the 1970s. In this engaging (semi-autobiographical?) story, a Sri Lankan Ph.D. student at the London School of Economics, going by the name of Bala, is invited to a meeting by Clarence, an acquaintance from home, now resident in the ‘mother country’. Bala is uncertain as to just what is required of him:

“I was not sure how to play my role: as a red insurrectionary or as black militant” (Sivanandan, 2000, p. 48)

The four white comrades bought him drinks for both affectations, but when the discussion turned to the issue of immigration into Britain it was Clarence, the ‘senior immigrant’, who won the most approval, and a kiss from one of the women, for a position that should readily be recognized even amidst the smoke and fug of the mid-afternoon local boozer. As the story tells it, Clarence ‘mumbled and spluttered incoherently about the responsibility of the mother country to its children and ended up declaring, “we are here because you were there”‘, something Bala had heard before. The meeting broke up, with the next Saturday scheduled as a discussion of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire.

The story goes on with various intricacies, the woman who kisses Clarence cooks a curry for Bala, Bala gets to know something of Clarence’s life in Britain, but the main point in my retelling this scene is neither appreciation of Sivanandan’s accomplished literary talents, nor to rehash some scenario in mockery of the curry-cooking patronising white left woman Tessa, but to register the movement that Sivanandan always tries to effect: the complication and extension of thought beyond platitudes and slogans, achieved always also from an activist’s perspective. The formula ‘we are here because you were there’ may in fact have the ring of truth, and it makes an excellent chant, and needs must be said. But saying it for approval, saying it into the ether, saying it without consequence, also deserves critical attention. Sivanandan questions the motives and context of sloganeering even in the very heart of a Marxist cell meeting discussion of immigration in the days when Compendium bookshop was still a fixture and visits to Cuba were the norm. Sivanandan shows us exactly where romantic attachments and the deceits of too-easy acceptance only allow platitudes when more is required. As to what happens at the end of the tale, without giving the story away—its called ‘The man who loved the dialectic’—a nuanced Marxism makes more sense of the predicament of contemporary life than that afforded in any other conception.

What then for writing about South Asians in Britain that would do more than rehearse either the trite axioms of identity politics or the romantic attachments of essentialist stereotype? On two sides there is a seductive danger and all too easy exoticist trap—playing the ethnic card and falling for ethnicist stereotypes have been the preserve of many who would write, with good intentions, the history of South Asians in Britain. On the one hand those who have appropriated the role of documenting Asian identities in the metropole, on the other metropolitan identities playing up to expectations. For the sake of convenience, this essay identifies this double trap in the congealed positions of anthropologists writing on South Asians in Britain, and in their identitarian informants—and it uses the critical position of a British-South Asian communist history (the subject matter that stems from Sivanandan’s fictional study group) as the counterfoil that disrupts this duality.

The procedure of taking category and classification in advance of observation and discussion has reified and fixed a conservative set of stereotypes. To assume that caste, kinship, arranged marriages and religious tradition are the main keys to comprehension of the social and political experience of South Asians in Britain is a common delusion. A delusion born from the work of anthropologists bent on finding rural and village subjects conveniently replicated in metropolitan settings. This is a conservative anthropology in the extreme, owing more to allegiance to old categories found ‘over there’ than politics and experience of people with agency ‘over here’. Not to say, of course, that caste, kin and religion are or were unimportant, but, as we will see, equally worthy of attention could be workplace and neighbourhood organizations, trade unionism, political activism, socialist and communist party affiliation, rallies and other such associations. It can be argued that the organizational history of South Asians in Britain has been particularly obscured by a blinding culturalism attuned only to the exotic. The worst consequence of this exoticism is to reduce the ‘migrant’ worker to a timeless and rural pre-political unconsciousness—an imperialist oversight that replicates ethnicist fantasy and depoliticises by means of reified culture.

Ethnographic approaches to South Asians in Britain have been culturalist and conservative in exactly this way (as we will see, Werbner, 1990; Gillespie, 1995; Hall, K., 2002). In the postcolonial framework, we should agree at the beginning that is important to avoid the stupid generalisations of voyeuristic social science. To extrapolate from one or two cases of some behaviour or other to then ascribe that behaviour to a cultural, national or ethnic group as a whole would be an error. The imaginary god-like observations that declare that ‘Muslims are X’ or ‘Sikhs do Y’ is as unacceptable as the old anthropological attributionism of ‘Nuer think . . .’ ‘Nuer say . . .’. Certainly there can be no final assertion that South Asians in Britain are or are not more or less politically engaged than anyone else—though like everyone else, some South Asians are and some are not . . . these arabesques are farcical. In discussion of diasporic Asian presence in Britain the designation must be ‘not postcolonial, not not postcolonial’. (Similarly, the critical position in this paper might be ‘not communist, not not communist’.)

This is not just a methodological concern of relevance to anthropological categories; it has current political purchase. In the discussion, for example, of participation by Muslim groups in the anti-war coalition, or as ‘targets of security forces’ at home, in the context of the ‘War on Terror’, a host of cascading racist substitutions appear, sliding rapidly from the shock image of fundamentalist suicide bombers to a spurious link with asylum seekers, generalised to all Muslims, then further extended to Asians and to non-white people in general. This often unexamined cascade inevitably draws sustenance from the general, more influential and wider social and culturalist limits of understanding of Asians, Islam, Hinduism and politics as disseminated in Britain through the artefacts of white academia. Monographs of Asian experience in Britain are few, but telling. In numerous university course offerings, as well as in the popular media, all South Asians are characterised in a double strategy, either as demons or as exotica, and neither stereotype comes close to an appreciation of the diversity of those under anthropological examination. The double strategy makes Asians either, and both, a people of curious culture—bhangra, spicy food, Bollywood—and a people of fanaticism—Islam, Hindutva, religious extremism. Sometimes both at the same time—militant spiritualism, spicy sweetmeats—the pathologies of categorization reveal more of the West than is seen in other domains. This ‘exotica-fanatica’ two step is found in academic texts explicitly to the exclusion of large sections of the history, and present, of South Asians in Britain. The culturalist discourse actively ignores organized political activity, at best offering asides to collaborationist or merely community-level action. This is true of the historical period of the anti-colonial movement, the Mahatma, just as much as it is true of the present, where the local Asian Labour Party glamour candidate might be foregrounded. There is no discussion of, for example, the leading contribution to the Communist Party of Great Britain of the likes of Saklatvala, Palme Dutt, or Krishna Menon, and it is very rare to see mention of similarly motivated activists in any of the major anthropological studies of South Asians in Britain today. In part the effort of this essay is to suggest a means to reconstruct this absent history by way of the field of biography (Callaghan, 1993; Wadsworth, 1998), the historical survey work of Visram (2002) and the living memory of so many Uncles, Aunties and the others involved in organizations like the Indian Workers Association, the Pakistani Workers Association, the journal Lalkar, and so forth (see Sharma et al., 1996 for a beginning attempt to acknowledge the recent history of the IWA; Brah, 1998 for a collection of more contemporary documents).

It is worth remembering from the start, in these days of ahistorical and culturalist appreciation of South Asian ethnicity in Britain, that there could be no ethnic trip, for academics or for cultural entrepreneurs alike, without the initial project of colonialism and its co-constituent consequence of labour exploitation. The British Raj and its global extractive orientation over several hundred years, and the brute fact that consequent migration into Britain from the colonies was not philanthropy, cannot be underestimated. Conventionally, ritual mention of imperial history is made in most scholarly studies—if not quite chanting ‘we are here because you were there’—but the drawing of inferences and implications does not necessarily inform general understandings in a political way. More often than not a political context is registered then diplomatically relegated, as culturalist commentary seeks out more flamboyant and exuberant themes than one which notes how so-called ethnic peoples were brought to Britain with one purpose in mind—white industry wanted to work them hard (in a way that war-weary organized white workers would not accept). Immigration shaped by imperialism and the exploitative requirements of manufacturing is the inescapable condition that frames British Asian settlement.

Of course it should not be thought that South Asian ‘migrant’ labourers had no agency in migration, or that the pull factor of labour shortage on the part of British industry was not complicated by diverse negotiations and structuring factors such as those called ‘chain migration’ and biraderi processes—as indeed named in anthropologist Werbner’s The Migration Process. Of course South Asians were not mere passive subjects of exploitation, but the study of these processes stresses the cultural in an ethnicist way, ignoring any analysis of contextualising circumstances. The Migration Process foregrounds an ethnographic gaze blinded in its micro exoticism to the wider realities that perhaps only politicised groups could tackle. It is a matter of record that anthropologists preferred to study kinship and culture while activists stressed struggle and exploitation. Ignoring left wing political activity with a vengeance, Werbner herself starts out by noting that the literature on South Asians in Britain is not clear on ‘how people have organized themselves to resist being passive victims’ and notes that ‘forms of cultural resistance vary from community to community’ (Werbner, 1990, p. 6). However, her interest is primarily in symbolic and culturalist categories and she fails to mention either the Indian or the Pakistani Workers Association, or any level of class or political association (beyond reference to anthropological notions of the ‘big man’ (p. 310)) and prefers to quote anthropologists like Gluckman and Mauss (much) rather than engage with Marx or Marxist influences (never).

It is not as if Werbner is unaware of the politics of South Asian organization in Britain, it’s just that anthropologists have somehow been inclined to ignore this aspect as part of a rush to rustic and ethnic caricature. It is interesting that the use of anthropology to study people within the West aimed to break a division of labour between sociology and anthropology in which the former discipline had focussed upon ‘advanced societies’ and anthropology had monopoly over ‘the Rest of the World’. But by deploying anthropology to examine South Asians in Britain without acknowledgement of political articulation and organization, a re-fashioned othering ‘at home’ marks the South Asian presence out as a scandalous interruption of the ‘Rest’ within the West. This South Asian interruption then opens up the possibility of constant refrains about the fundamental illegitimacy of settlement as a threat to the coherence of the nation—exactly one of the key areas of South Asian organizational work. Sadly, this was not of interest to anthropology, as old school exoticism was imported whole from the colonial theatre. Sasha Josephides faults the two early anthropological studies of the pre-1970s Indian Workers Association, identified in her 1991 essay (the reference is to Desai, 1963 and John, 1969), with a methodological individualism derived from Frederick Bailey’s Strategems and Spoils (1969), Mayer’s ‘action sets’ (1966) and models of social organization approaches made popular by Fredrik Barth (1966). In offering an alternative to these approaches (Josephides, 1991, p. 253), the possibility of a more adequate comprehension of the story of the IWA was promised. Unfortunately this beginning was not developed and the culturalist-ethnicist hegemony prevailed in anthropological work ‘at home’. Gerd Bauman is one of the few (tenured) anthropologists writing in the 1990s to mention the IWA at all—in his study of Southall entitled Contesting Culture (1996)—yet even here the focus is on fairly old school anthropological notions of community and negotiation. There does seem to be an injunction against taking any contemporary tone in analysis of the South Asian contribution to the United Kingdom.

Asian workers ‘at home’ have been organized, culturally and politically, and have provided a critique of anthropological categorisation themselves by focusing on political and organizational issues. It is salutary to find that the communist or Marxist-inspired authors and activists that should be discussed here were able to provide a critique of eurocentric models of social science writing long before such critiques—under the guise of reflexive anxiety and postmodern doubt—became common rhetoric within the social sciences as taught in white institutions. The need to challenge slavish mimicry of received versions of positivist and quantitative sociology, or exoticist and primitivist anthropology, has been nurtured amongst militant organizations much more than can be said of the credentialist teaching factories we call universities. A watchful vigilance against the pitfalls of complicity in surveillance knowledge production and the seductions of token-incorporation should not mean non-participation in those still-dominant institutions—only that such participation is best thought of, and practised, first as critical and oppositional. In contradistinction to a culture of liberal alibi, the non-token stance is not to enact left posturing within the colleges, but to institute pathways and openings for further critical gains that refuse to replicate voyeuristic scholarship—collaborative critical production projects, cross-sectoral alliances, campaign-based resourcing and knowledge production is far more useful than merely interpreting the world according to hitherto existing structures. How to avoid voyeuristic replication of the anthro-gaze? Place South Asians in the subject, not the object, position in your research. How does the world look if seen from the position of British South Asians, and what can we learn from that? Not how does the white world look when invaded by exotic-fanatic, other worldly, inscrutable ethnics. Is it possible to re-orient (or dis-Orient) minds away from the demographic ethnographic and voyeuristic position and rethink the history of the metropolis as made by outsiders with an investment in coming inside without forgetting the co-constitutive origins of here and there, not just ‘there’.

The unsung heroes of the Workers Movement and the communist tradition in the United Kingdom are many; more than the deployment of numerous sociologists and oral historians could possibly document in present circumstances. There are of course several high profile and well known names to be acknowledged—I’ve already mentioned them: Saklatvala, Palme-Dutt, Sivanandan himself—but the naming of names of course should not be offered without due recognition that without considerable support from anonymous comrades, tireless mill and factory worker-organizers, fellow travellers and family, there could be no communist movement at all. [This is possibly the most convenient place to admit I have a personal investment here. The argument that it was as stokers on British Merchant Navy ships that Pakistanis, specifically Mirpuris, first initiated chain migration to Britain, (Kahn, 1977; Ballard, 1987, p. 24; Kalra, 2000a, p. 63) is interesting to me particularly as my grandfather Thomas Moat Tate was a stoker in that same navy himself during the second imperialist war and often told stories of the camaraderie, and racism, among those below decks. Not wanting to buy into the argument that (Azad) Kashmiri migration begins with the stokers leaving their ships to work in munitions factories (the overall significance of which Kalra disputes as a mythic foundation for the ‘chain migration’ thesis), I nonetheless hope to support this critique by publishing my grandfather’s memoirs one day (imperialist history resides in most closets, none can deny it)].

Indulgent and glorified personal histories aside, not every migrant to Britain, and certainly not every South Asian joined the communist party or some other left group, but the history of such struggles is known amongst the South Asian communities today and is ‘imbibed as if with mothers milk’ (‘Informant A’, interview with author). How could anthropologists miss it? Largely because they have focussed their gaze upon relatively unformed sectors of the population—quite often school children — and read off culture from small survey samples. This can be seen for example in Mary Gillespie’s ethnographic study of school kids watching television in Southall (Hutnyk, 1996) and can be found again in Kathleen Hall’s (2002) study of Sikhs in Leeds — Lives in Translation: Sikh Youth as British Citizens — neither work managing to mention organized left activity, or organized anti-racism even as they discuss liberal stances on that theme, in their books. Written with a wider brief, yet in no significant way does the anthropological approach of K. Hall advance on that of Gillespie, published eight years earlier. The school setting, the camaraderie via knowing transgression, the selective interviews and the realist ethnographic convention remains pretty much the same. Hall seems slightly more alert to issues of power, and is unduly obsessed with turbans, but there is not much to distinguish her study from the many other anthropological reports on the children of diaspora in that it does little to address the redistributive justice so much needed and so often articulated by those Asian organizations that the likes of Gillespie and Hall choose to ignore. At least Hall can recognize some ‘campaign’ activity in her (brief) discussion of the efforts to get Punjabi language classes onto the curriculum at her school. But we have to ask just what it is that makes anthropologists so keen to generalise on culture from the basis of a handful of interviews with school aged teenagers—why pick on the kids? Clearly authority plays it part. Much like Gillespie, Hall deploys the terminology of ‘second generation’ and ‘caught between two cultures’ on the first pages of her study of Sikhs in Britain. By ‘second generation’ might we hear a kind of insistence that the people under investigation (all of them) are forever named as arrivees from elsewhere? Though approving of Homi Bhabha’s notion of third space and seeing hybridity as the place where migrant people (?) live their lives through acts of cultural translation, Hall also, briefly, approves Kaur and Kalra’s notion of Transl-asia (K. Hall, 2002, pp. 5,142; Kaur & Kalra, 1996), but perhaps misses the ironic and critical dimension to that intervention. Clearly for Kaur and Kalra, Transl-asia does not equal third space hybridity, but also explicitly underlines the political and debated context of varied responses to these translated discussions and their context in multi-racist Britain. (Kalra’s essay in Theory, Culture and Society [2000b] on non-translation makes this political aspect even more pertinent. All the same, Hall’s appreciation of the work of the transl-asia group is welcome). In studies like this, the characterisation of people who ‘arrived’ in the UK some 30 years before publication as either school children or ‘second generation’ is not merely empirical in its consequences—as a study of Sikhs, or even Sikh youth, it leaves much aside. Perhaps because the fieldwork was conducted so long before publication (it is, she says, a study marked by Thatcherism), the attached afterword mention of racial violence in Oldham and Bradford in the summer of 2001 (K. Hall, 2002, p. 204) adds little to counter the impression in the main text that white anthropologists working on South Asians ‘at home’ see them primarily as visitors ‘over here’. Certainly only a few historical studies of organized left Asians are available (and it is because Hall, Werbner, Gillespie are not interested in the left that these are most often biographies of great leaders written by academic fellow travellers without ethnographic skills, though the survey of Visram is of impressive scope [Visram, 2002]). In most cases, however, any notion of Asian left organization is excluded or actively avoided (fear of restless natives perhaps?). It is particularly astonishing that Hall manages an entire book on Sikhs in Britain without mention of the IWA—and though it would not be enough to simply correct the record with the great names history of that organization, studies that are no longer beholden to uncritical tropes of anthropology would actually be a start. It might be a chance to move beyond the pathologies of myopic interpretation and comprehension; the point would be to change the ways ethnography represents.

There are a few South Asian writers who escape the apparent anthropological agreement to avoid examination of everyday political associations. As already mentioned, there were and are vast differences among South Asians in terms of participation in organized political groupings, just as there is in the population in general. Kalra shows that there has been considerable union and other organization of South Asian labour from the earliest days of settlement in Britain (Kalra, 2000a, p. 122). Although participation by black workers in workplace Union organizations was substantial, ‘their incorporation into the wider union movement was not’ (p. 117). It is certainly the case that a majority of workers only come in contact with their unions when some issue particular to their own employment necessitates representation, but this too reflects the general case. What accounts for the disarticulation of South Asian unionization in particular with the wider union movement in general if not racism? This is yet another parallel that obscures history and fails to normalise understandings in an exotico-fanatic vein. At any rate workplace Union participation is not to be ignored as it is in the ethnographic literature.

The exposure of the anthropological and sociological construction of South Asian migrant workers malleability, acquiescence and compliance, of their putting up ‘with unattractive work if it is temporary and they have an alternative life to return to’ (Kalra, 2000a, p. 20) is well taken. What this construction does is deflect scholarly attention away from the varied ways in which South Asian agency and political engagement—in the workplace, in terms of class, race and indeed culture—does manifest itself and is not convincingly rejected with an anthropological laissez faire view where ‘black workers are assumed to lack the cultural and political resources with which to adapt to the customs of the industrial workforce’ (p. 20).

This is reinforced by Kalra’s analysis of the ‘myth of return’ thesis (2000a, p. 19) which has it that South Asian workers in Britain retained an ever less likely ideology of wanting to return to their countries of origin. Proponents of this line of explanation saw migrants as having limited political engagement because they saw themselves as resident in a ‘host’ country (Kalra, 2000a, p. 19, Anwar, 1979). Kalra finds examples in Rose (1969) and again repeated 20 years later in Werbner (1990, p. 7). The inference that should be drawn however is not that migrants were politically conservative. The monolithic ‘myth of return’, like its later counterpart the ‘second generation’ problem, insists that a migrant is a migrant is a migrant—and by implication really belongs elsewhere, overseas, over there in their proper home. Revealingly, as Kalra’s usage demonstrates, the terminology of ethnicist scholarship insists on migration, not settlement. An anthropology predestined to insist on this myth is not far from the more explicit racism of the ‘paki go home’ politics of the National Front and BNP.


Who then were the South Asians who not only did not ‘go home’ but who stayed ‘here’ because the British were ‘there’ and who refused to fall into the trap of ignoring the co-constitution of here and there as a factor in the political, cultural and economic circumstances of contemporary Britain? These were the people who organized politically as South Asians and as Communists in trades union, in anti-racist groups and in party formations. There is much work that could be done by a reconfigured anthropology on these matters. It is only an indicative survey, a kind of initial listing or a first register of issues for examination that will be attempted here—the names mentioned are not exhaustive and offer only a kind of red interlude and reminder. As already mentioned, the list of the great and the good as found in published biography are never the full story. I would argue for a wider range of studies that would pay different kinds of attention to political organization, and would do so in a variety of ways. There will be opportunity later to set out the research program for a wider appreciation.

Shapurji Saklatvala was first elected to the British parliament in 1922, standing as member of the Labour Party, though never secretive about being a communist. He was nephew of the Tata business empire and married Sally Marsh in Oldham, after being sent to England in 1905, where he became a friend of Sylvia Pankhurst. By 1907 he was a member of the Marxist group the Social Democratic Foundation—a forerunner of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the CPGB (Wadsworth, 1998, pp. 23–24)—and sought a position in representative politics in Battersea. The Labour Party of course had reservations about endorsing someone associated with the Communist Party, but sanctioned his candidature on condition that he accept the Labour whip and constitution—‘the first and only time the Labour Party endorsed a Communist Party member for a parliamentary seat’ (Wadsworth, 1998, p. 42). In 1924 the Labour Party had taken a decision to expel communists from their party and Saklatvala then won his seat running as a communist. He was imprisoned in 1926 for sedition, at the time of the general strike. As the Labour Party excluded him, the Tories chanted ‘send him back to India’ as well as ‘send him back to Moscow’. Saklatvala indeed departed for a successful tour of India, greeted by well wishers wherever he spoke as a fighter against the imperialist power. Interestingly, he was criticised by the founder of the Indian Communist Party, M.N. Roy, for hanging about with Gandhi during the visit. Though his was never uncritical support, as Saklatvala questioned the Mahatma’s promotion of khaddar in terms that stressed the importance of egalitarian worker’s organization—at one public meeting stressing that the jute workers in Dundee had to realise the urgent need ‘of making the Bengal jute workers as well as the Bengal jute growers, a part and parcel of the British Jute Workers’ Federation, demanding a six hour day and £5 a week minimum wages, whether the factory be in Dundee or Calcutta’ (in Wadsworth, 1998, p. 55). This position of proletarian internationalism clearly goes an organizational step further than Gandhi’s photo opportunity with Oldham’s mill workers in the 1930s. Amusingly, in a letter to Gandhi, Saklatvala made the point that it seemed contradictory to encourage people in spinning, so as to make more clothes, at the same time as giving the example of wearing less and less himself. Saklatvala’s visits to India were curtailed when the Government revoked his passport, with the Secretary of State for India, William Wedgewood Benn confirming the ban in 1929 in what has come to be known as ‘ghastly imperialist mode’ (William Wedgewood was the father of Tony Benn) (pp. 68–70). Saklatvala’s call for the CPGB to organize at the ports among Asian seamen was ignored in much the same way as the white left today has failed to take up the cause of Asylum Seekers and refugees. Yet his influence upon the rank and file cadre was immense. Visram reports that Bengali workers celebrated Saklatvala Day in 1937 and British communists fought in the Saklatvala Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (Visram, 2002, p. 319). When Saklatvala died, George Padmore paid him tribute, along with Nehru and Palme Dutt.

Rajani Palme Dutt, first cousin of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, via his mother Anne, was born in 1896 at Cambridge. Rajani and his bother Clemens were both involved in left-wing politics at university, with Rajani being expelled from Oxford in 1917 for refusing conscription into the army—though he did eventually take out a first class degree. Palme Dutt started the CPGB’s theoretical journal Labour Monthly in 1921, editing it for more than 50 years, with two years—1936–38—as editor of The Daily Worker and more than 40 years on the Central Committee. He unsuccessfully ran in Birmingham as a communist for the parliament in 1945 and in 1950. He died in 1974.

As it was for Palme Dutt and Saklatvala in the 1920s, it remains important today to make the connection between anti-colonialism and the struggle for emancipation ‘at home’. Imperialism overseas is co-constituted with inequalities in the domestic sphere. The one bound up with the other, neither resolvable alone. Palme Dutt opposed the First World War as ‘an imperialist abomination’ (Callaghan, 1993, p. 14), and this at a time when there was even less support than an anti-war voice would have today. Palme Dutt led the way, though many did not realise how much it was in their interests to follow.

Along with Saklatvala, Palme Dutt insisted that the leadership of Lenin was important because the old Bolshevik had made imperialism a key focus of revolutionary struggle. The Comintern was the vehicle of an organized anti-colonialism. It is important not to forget how much this meant for people in India, Malaya, Indonesia, China and other subjugated colonies, and also how it resonated with the diverse British working class, and how such alliance and interest in internationalism continues today (albeit usually depoliticized under studies of cultural diasporas).

Udham Singh: When arrested for shooting dead former Amritsar Governor Michael O’Dwyer in 1940, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohamad Singh Azad, signifying a Muslim—Sikh alliance for freedom (Visram, 2002, p. 272). His name was recently celebrated in song by Asian Dub Foundation on their album R.A.F.I. (1998, see Hutnyk, 2000) though it is unusual to hear the name mentioned in British anthropology or sociology (but see Clark, 1975; Kalra, 2000b).

These few figures, however, are the old names. There are many more that remain unacknowledged, and it is the task of historians, commentators activists and students to write these stories without reaching out to exoticist categories. The tale of the Southall Indian Workers Association for example is not only its relation to Indian-based political groupings but also its relations to the British Communist tradition and issues of separate or joint organization. Should black organizations organize separately from the white left given the historical propensity of that left—mostly in its Trotskyite variants—to see black organizations as areas for recruitment and for ‘parachuting in’ to do publicity for their own campaigns? What are the requisite organizational forms which can fight the co-constituted violence of imperialism there and racism here, based as it is on the modern fantasy of the nation state as sole arbiter of population and border control for the purposes of capitalist production. On the primary role of the nation state here see Angela Mitropoulos who argues that the ‘refugee problem . . . [is] . . . the greatest challenge to the principle role of the nation state: the “right” of nation states (whether as one nation or “united” nations) to allocate, regulate and control bodies for the purposes of capitalist production’ (Mitropoulos, 2001). Alongside such issues and such questioning, there might be room for research investigation of the issues raised by Tariq Mehmood in his novel Where there is Light (2003) that would require interrogation of police actions tracking South Asian activists in Bradford and other northern towns. The relation of South Asian organizations and various associated activisms to the reformist populism of the Labour Party, including its ‘Black Sections’ deserves continued attention, as does the activity of various anti-deportation campaigns, asylum-seeker support, immigration group work in general and community self-defence organization (see Dis-Orienting Rhythms for some discussion of this last theme in particular, Sharma et al., 1996).

Would ethnographic and documentary history not find fitting subjects in the formation of the Black People’s Alliance and responses to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ speech? The participation of South Asian activists in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and other anti-imperialism struggles as well as campaigns against apartheid in South Africa remain to be written. In struggles like these people were ‘not fighting for culture’, in Sivanandan’s phrase, and not likely to sell out to the management of racism inaugurated in the wake of the Scarman Report—which was at least engaged with to some degree by the early Birmingham Cultural Studies School (in anticipation of this management, see Hall et al., 1978). It is a matter of record, however, that Cultural Studies in general has abandoned this more political terrain, and the morphing of anthropology with that discipline is part of the problem. Scholarship becomes popular in inverse proportion to its irritant charge and the establishment of anthropology at home and a cross-disciplinary take up of a bland ethnicist ethnography is symptomatic. It cannot be left just to magazines like Lalkar, newspaper of the IWA (GB), and Spark, by the Youth Wing of the Socialist Labour Party, to make the agitational moves.

Sivanandan himself offers a sketch of part of this missing history in his essay ‘From resistance to rebellion’, but doing history always takes second place to activist engagement. Siva was a member of the Black Unity and Freedom Party. As editor of Race and Class, organizer-director of the IRR, as campaigning public speaker and as accomplished novelist, he spent many years advising and involved with anti-racist and working class struggles—the special issue full of tributes to his work (Race and Class) attests to this. It was probably not an unusual occurrence, then, when Sivanandan abandoned his prepared speech to launch an attack on a fellow panellist at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the 6th Pan African Congress meeting in Manchester, the indication to many in the audience was that political struggle remained more important than either personality or the polite protocols of scholarly decorum. It was to the palpable relief of activists in the audience that Siva railed against hapless anthropological-cum-exoticist assumptions in treatment of the history of pan-Africanism as a culturalist curio rather than a political legacy.

Like Saklatvala, Sivanandan’s politics were never specific to South Asian interests, but without departing from those interests he also took up the interests of the entirety of humanity and so entered into debates on themes as diverse as technological change and the ‘silicon age’ in the capitalist production process; the ‘hokum’ of New Times thinking in the reinvention of the British Labour Party (as ‘Thatcherism in drag’); on South Africa; teaching; and globalisation, as well as self-defence work; racism; Sri Lanka and imperialism.

The issues are important and resonate today. The themes need to be contextualized not in terms of ethnic organization as such, but related to the narrative of changes to labour force/class composition and imperialist restructuring after so called globalization (sweatshops, off-shore labour, mill closures, service sector and the class struggle). Unexhausted and inexhaustible histories remain to be documented and to inspire. Tales for that scene round the kitchen table, tales for the summer afternoon. The work to be done builds communities of resistance with memories. The simple and undeniably normal fact that South Asians of all stripes have been involved in left activity in Britain was and remains a key to the politics of this country. Whether it be the current conjuncture and the mobilization against the war on Iraq and the anti-terror persecutions of the paranoid Blair Government, or the anti-racist movements of the 1970s and the 1990s, in struggles around workplace conditions and exploitation of cheap labour (Grundwick, Hillingdon), or other examples, South Asians can be counted. In each of these cases and more, without romanticizing, South Asian engagement in politics in Britain has as often as not taken a simultaneously anti-racist and anti-colonialist cross-sectoral orientation. This reaches back even to the long time ago core participation in the Communist Party of Great Britain of Rajani Palme Dutt, and in the Comintern by Dutt and M.N. Roy, and even to the beginnings of anti-colonialism in general, and working class politics in particular, Menon, Saklatvala, so many others.

Faced with racist and class confrontation every day, situated in contexts of prejudicial attack and the struggles, and contradictions, of class mobility, there is a diverse range of political awareness to be tapped among the South Asian community that seems less readily accessible for white youth unless they retain a specifically ‘working class’ formation. Even then this can often take reactionary form in any community. The trouble with the available documentation on South Asian experience in Britain is that those making such documentation have not been interested in political and organized responses to racism so much as a kind of liberal celebration of their own anti-racist credentials—it must be mentioned—which then transmutes and transforms Asian agency to the machineries of anthropological categorisation.

The studies available of contemporary British Asians—Werbner, et al.—hardly ever mention the communist contribution to the history of struggles against racism, or other modes of oppression in capitalist Britain, in the terms articulated by those involved in such struggles. Bauman sometimes does, Gillespie and Hall not at all. Admittedly, the available biographical histories of the communist left may sometimes be more alert, but they are always couched in the context of great names. The text of Visram’s Asians in Britain is an exception, but it stops far too early. Reconstructed ethnographers need now be deployed.

Looking Forward: ‘A Homeless Anthropology’

The question to ask might be not what are these Asian settlers doing, but, knowing something of the struggles for which they devoted their lives, can this knowledge vouchsafed to scholars, commentators, critics, be transmuted into learning and motivation, or must it add merely to the edification of inmates of the administered bland of the academia-industrial-infotainment complex? There is an imperative that is more important than prestige and sales, and that is not to become apologists by imitation, capitulating to the paradigms and perspectives of imperialist social science like loyal coolies or the compradore class of old.

Against a surveillance knowledge production on Asians, there is already a critique built into working-class history, and twisting it towards identity politics or ethnicist ends does a disservice. That this ethnicist anthropology is taught for all intents and purposes in unchanged (Malinowskian) form to the increasing numbers of black students entering the universities is as ironic as it is perverse. To note the limited number of black graduates that continue into the teaching profession at research level is to recognize a grand disparity and suggests provocative questions: for example, would it be possible to imagine a black British anthropology? A test to gauge the elimination of racism from British Anthropology might be to ask this hypothetical and fantasy question: What if, in just one department anywhere in the system, or a newly formed department, exactly no Anglo-Saxon, white, anthropologists were involved in any way with the teaching of the discipline, yet all the tasks of teaching anthropology were performed by fully accredited and qualified British Anthropologists, i.e., by black or Asian British anthropologists? Can such a scenario be imagined and would this department still be considered to teach ‘British’ Social Anthropology? Would it be considered a British department? People will dismiss this as impossible, impracticable, and unworkable—they might say there is not the staff, no new departments are planned, it would be a ghetto, it would cause ‘imbalances’, separatism, etc. But the abstract absurdity of even suggesting a black Anthropology Department indicates that white supremacy prevails as normalcy, as a never challenged standard and essential core. Race is the criteria for ensuring a ‘proper’ representation among the teaching staff—which is to say, race is used as criteria for exclusion of at least one possibility—an all black, all British department—and at best a tolerant tokenistic mix might be approved. Why would it be so unimaginable to appoint ten black Britons to one anthropology department in Britain? For those who think critically about knowledge and politics, the impossibility of a Black Anthropology means only that the entire system, disciplinary forms and protocols, appointments, teaching programs and curricula, must be done away with—anything less maintains an unexamined white supremacy that will never relinquish its presumptuous right to rule. It would not be a surprise to find the only condition for such an anthropology to thrive would be if it reproduced the platitudes and certitudes of an imperial anthropology of the Rest, now with ‘coloured’ practitioners, alongside the usual ‘at home’ exoticism of minority and ‘second generation’ migrant surveillance.

The cultivation of what Sivanandan once called ‘a class of collaborators’ who would be useful in ‘the political control of a rebellious ‘second generation’ (Sivanandan, 1982, p. 101) is not obviously countered by simple celebration of the commitment and contribution of South Asian comrades in Britain. Obviously there are interests vested in such a ‘class’ on the part of anthropologists and on the part of ‘identity politicians’ the promotion of such positions cannot remain innocently unremarked. It is however the case that if these narratives are not set out as either role models or nostalgia, they might possibly serve to indicate the diversity and complexity of South Asian experience in Britain, as elsewhere. The story might also show how the reductive type casting so beloved of ‘identity politics’, as with collaboration and even complicity with the avowed enemy racist stereotyping, does not match how things are for those who look closely and with eyes open.

Sivanandan was among the first to recognize that the personalised politics of identity was dangerous in that this identity politics can sometimes morph into an apolitical ‘postcolonialism’ in the metropolitan centres and remain wilfully ignorant of politics on the other side of the international division of labour. Gayatri Spivak (1999) also usefully targets the ways in which arrivee settlers cloak themselves in the comforts of an accommodatonist migrancy or multiculturalism, making the ‘postcolonial’ a problematic category. Who benefits here? What is served by an erudition that remains in comfort in the elite salon? As Brennen points out, a radicalism of belief survives, though those radicals of the activist Left are more often found ‘hibernating in academia’ (Brennan, 1999, p. 26) and especially in anthropology and in cultural studies: that place which Gargi Bhattacharyya calls one of the ‘most well-meaning sections of higher education’ (Bhattacharyya, 1998, p. 56). From here, there is no guarantee that the deployment of fieldworkers to document the activities of the masses of South Asians involved in political work would necessarily mean this work was immune from the publishing industry and corresponding tenure system that thrives on making product, not politics. Kalra refers to ‘a bludgeoning of literature about Muslims in Britain’ that has emerged in academia since 1990 (Kalra, 2000a, p. 196). This onslaught gained sales, if not spectacular impetus, in the post-September 11 book market as publishers fell over themselves to supply shelves with any back title that mentioned Islam or Afghanistan. The quality of this work is of course mixed; the purpose for which it is now read is often different to that with which it as written. In this context the problem with anthropological approaches to cultural groups in Britain is much the same as the problem of white left approaches—a homogenising project of knowing that ignores agency and ignores wider geo-political implications. Here, the Black and White Unite and Fight slogan is important so long as it is not merely a slogan that substitutes for critical analysis—as Sivanandan had pointed out with the ‘over here over there’ couplet. To market publications that are unashamedly open to be read as ‘ethnic’ or ‘identity’ documentary reportage is little different from the exoticist-fanatisist routines of the tabloid press.

The production of knowledge of South Asian popular culture in the UK should no longer be driven by antiquated anthropological concerns that recycle metaphors of caste, tribe and village to account for South Asian settlers in a so-called ‘advanced’ capitalist society. The old mission of an anthropology at home is now forever obsolete. Those who maintain its ghost are orientalism’s latter-day profiteers, the compradore class and its calculating employers, working in the teaching factory, replicating their own system themselves. In contradistinction to this, it might be plausible to write the story of South Asian political engagement in the UK in a different way. To collect moments of South Asian popular culture in Britain in a more radical register—one that did not minimise agency in favour of categories (from Gluckman, Bailey, etc.)—to hold together the multiple locations of diaspora without imposing an origin-ist or anthro-exoticist privilege to geographical South Asia itself. Along the way to link up a politics that made more than historical niceties out of a history of struggle. The ‘subcontinent’ is involved, but it is not by any means always the key geographical or political, or even cultural, co-ordinate to be considered. Communist histories may be co-constituted in multiple ways—the project to realise these histories remains to be done.

This text schematises such a project, which continues yet to begin.

Chapter 6. Capital Calcutta: Coins, Maps, Monuments, Souvenirs and Tourism.

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The King was in his counting house…


Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange (Karl Marx 1867/1967:73)

This chapter begins with the charitable gift of a coin passed from the rich West to the poor East in the city of Calcutta. Specifically, with two scenes in the cinema of travel that celebrate such exchange. A traveller arrives in India. There are many arrival scenes – by train, plane and taxi. The visitor is confronted outside his hotel by begging children [the traveller in cinema is so often male]. He reaches into his pocket for a trinket. Some bauble to amuse the kids. In thinking about the city in the third world today, the arrival moments I am interested in are the first exchanges between travellers and locals. Patrick Swayze doing coin tricks outside his hotel in The City of Joy and Bill Murray outside his in The Razor’s Edge. Claude Lévi-Strauss could be here too, where he describes:

Every time I emerged from my hotel in Calcutta, which was besieged by cows and had vultures perched on its window-sills, I became the central figure in a ballet which would have seemed funny to me, had it not been so pathetic. The various accomplished performers made their entries in turn: a shoeblack flung himself at my feet; a small boy rushed up to me; whining ‘One anna, Papa, one anna!’ [an anna is a small coin] a cripple displayed his stumps (Lévi-Strauss 1955/1973:134)[1].

What I want to illustrate are the ways the city scene in the third world is caught up in a counterfeit exchange. Derrida says of the counterfeit coin, that it must pass itself off as real. Swayze’s sleight of hand trick on the kids tells us much about the deceit here, Murray’s version of the same is refused – neither gift is adequate.

In the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge, the hero – Tyrone Power – visits a studio based ‘Indian’ city high in the Himalayan hills, replete with Greco-Roman columns, peacocks, Chines gongs and blacked-up mystics. Shangri-La, above the clouds, not in Tibet, or Bhutan or Nepal or India, but in Hollywood – just as with The City of Joy, director Roland Joffe spent millions building a slum set south of Calcutta since no real slum was slum enough for his film about a charity outfit servicing the slums of Calcutta.[2] The third world city is a site of many fantasies and deceits for the Western visitor. By giving a coin in charity the attempt is to recompensate an inequality – however, this gift works by way of emphasizing that inequality.

<Photo – Swayze in City of Joy – Caption: No slum was slum enough.>

These are more recent examples of a founding scene of city-building. The first coins in India, according to Allchin (1995) , appeared between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, the earliest coins being silver, but copper currency was minted soon after. Allchin links the spread of urban settlement and coinage closely, tracing the same route north-west to the Ganga Valley then to the peninsula South (Allchin 1995). Coins, of course, are not found only in cities – since it is along trade routes across the Himalayas and along the Ganges that they travel, but the debate over location does exercise the experts. Numismatists discuss the relative merits of coin hordes, weights, markings, the rubbing of coins, scrapings of value, wear and tear, and how those most often found in the archaeological record nearby their site of minting are the heavier of the type – since thinner ones can be assumed to have passed through many hands, and so travelled far from the mint, etc., (see the excellent Marxist historian Kosambi 1956:173). Here it would be protocol to insert the famous quote from Nietzsche about truths being metaphors whose meanings have rubbed off like old coins, and Derrida’s discussion of this in his ‘White Mythology’ essay (Derrida 1972/1982). But coin rubbing is also something that preoccupied poor, cold and grumpy Marx:

The coin, which comes into contact with all sorts of hands, bags, purses, pouches, tills, chests and boxes, wears away, leaves a particle of gold here and another there, thus losing increasingly more of its intrinsic content as a result of abrasion sustained in its worldly career. While in use it is getting used up (Marx 1857/1987:343)

Marx also notes the ‘contradiction between gold as coin and gold as universal equivalent, which circulates not only within the boundaries of a given territory, but also on the world market’ (Marx 1857/1987:345-6). Subsequently a whole archive of discussion of coins in philosophy has been unearthed by Caffentzis, discussing Newton, Locke, Simmel and Marx: ‘a counterfiter presupposes the existence of a civil government’ (Caffentzis 1989:72). Whatever the case, ill-gotten gains or not, coin hordes in the record generally mark an extended productive economy with one or more urban ‘centres’ within a more or less integrated domain which can be read as an archive of plunder.

More recently than the old archeologicals, but not so recent as Marx perhaps, is the coin trick perpetrated by the East India Company at the foundation of the British presence in India, where a few coins begin the process of Capital formation – the capital of the Raj – the site of capitalist extraction of wealth to Europe. I want to look at the contemporary traces of this scene in the city in the experience of travellers today – as compared to those members of the East India Co., in the early days who ‘converted’, who went in search of riches – what are/were they up to? Those heroes of the Company who became massively rich, Job Charnok, Clive, the ‘robber-baron’ and his suicide. So, these themes: Coins and extraction. Adventurism and ideology. This token hunt encompasses tricks, deceit, exploitation and appropriation. The framing tropes here are forms of violence encapsulated in the signs of the marketplace. The scenes in the cinema celebrate this extraction, the methods of the Company, and the capitalist ‘gift’ of wealth to Europe. The very coins that founded Calcutta were slave-trade booty. The main point is that the financial centre of Empire was never London, but Calcutta, and that understandings of the meaning, money, motivation and memory of Empire have travelled the wrong way for three hundred years. This is a violence consequent upon the formations of disciplines of knowledge and protocols of culture reportage insofar as history and travel guides perpetuate myths of Calcutta. Against the escape velocity of conventional alibis for the colonial record, some other moves are possible. The movement against imperialism begins in the city, as does the movement of products – tea, cotton, back and forth – and of a cultural politics which leads today back to the cinema, to the movement of the image and of meanings, and of the memory, or mimesis, of development and anti-development, and a transformatory project that can reconfigure the world. Contemporary traveller-visitors and their losses, the ways they get around, the purchase they carry today in what was the centre of Empire – ‘built on silt, but gold’ Kipling wrote – all this needs to be recast.

So if it is coins that travel, it is also coins that mark the foundations of even the oldest cities. Pieces of Eight. The travel of coins marks out the value, signifies trade, locates the market – from here the city is a predictable arrival. It would of course be too much like a Lewis Mumford type simplification to see this as anything more than a grand narrative convenience, but the coincidence of coins, travels, markets and cities is sure enough to serve as a point of confluence.

There are so many coin exchanges we really must be going to market: ‘The Razor’s Edge’, ‘The City of Joy’, Lévi-Strauss, and soon Moorhouse with blood-curdling imageries. The purchase of land for a factory (see the film ‘Tales from Planet Kolkata’ as an antidote to ‘City of Joy’). Souvenirs. Monuments. Maps. Charity. It should not be thought that I am suggesting any simple equation of coins, market and urbanisation, and Marx himself was careful to avoid simplifying complex relations in his discussions of the city as the centre of rural life, as the centre of warfare, of crafts and of trade (Marx 1857/1986:402-7).

If exchange and the international division of labour is the scene to be analysed we could do no worse than study Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘The Immigrant’ (1917 – perhaps significantly) and the scene where the tramp conjures with a coin to purchase – trick, con, contrive – a meal in a city restaurant. He finds a coin on the street and goes in to eat, but the coin has fallen through a hole in his pocket. Another tramp enters having found the coin, and pays the waiter for his meal. The waiter loses the coin through a hole in his pocket, Charlie tries to pick it up (vaudeville here that need not be detailed) but the waiter keeps on looking around at the wrong time. Eventually he pays, but the water bites he coin and finds it is a counterfeit. Then a to and fro about who will pay the bill, with Charlie eventually appropriating someone else’s change so as to pay. This parable on the ingenuity of the beggar is a useful parallel text to Baudelaire’s one on the counterfeit coin as discussed by Derrida in Given Time (1991/192:endpiece). There the coin need not be real to serve as charity, the confession by the giver that the coin was counterfeit may itself be false, tricks upon tricks. The marketplace is full of them and you need to be sharp to prevail.

The Queen was in the parlour…

Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system (Marx 1867/1967:737)

It is necessary to explore three factors in the movement of Capitalism in the last fifty, and three hundred, years. First the well established mobility of capitalist production as it crosses borders in search of profit – usually cheap labour (and sites of low labour regulation) but also super profits, a kind of adventure speculation; second the distribution of products, or rather the increasing reach of commerce, of consumption, of everybody doing flips and twists to get into a pair of American blue jeans and drink Coca-Cola; and thirdly, a countervailing factor, or rather reneging, that closes borders and expels, that rejects those workers brought to the metropolitan centres of Europe in a time when Capital didn’t seem to move so fast. This third factor is closely linked to the first, just as in an earlier period migration was linked to the need for workers inside the ‘west’.  In both scenarios the extension of money-mediated exchange and consumption to all corners continued unabated, and intricately  bound up with representation and repression.

It is the first factor – movement motivated by profit motives – that brings the East India Co. to Calcutta. Not today, perhaps (but witness the abundance of trade delegations visiting the newly deregulating India, including communist West Bengal), but certainly as the motive for the officials and buccaneers in search of fortune (no doubt there were some philanthropes too, but few) was no subtle tourism. Just over three hundred years ago Job Charnok and the English came and built a factory on the site of three villages – the British traders had entered India in 1612 and purchased land from local rulers with silver coin earned through the brutal slave trade markets of the West Indies. These first tainted coins begin a city by a process on the backs of people become commodities (Marx 1857/1986:419-20). This twisted social relation must be examined:

The mysterious character of the commodity form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of human labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves … Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensual or social. In the same way the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye … I call this fetishism (Marx 1867/1967:164-165)

There is a whole range of images, narratives and meanings that cause us to accept this routine. The discipline required of the market interests me. I would agree with Andrew Lattas that ‘an analysis of gifts has also to ground gifts in those structures of reification, self-mystification and legitimation which gifts make available. It is not a question of denying or dismissing as false the gift’s ideology, but of exploring its constitutive power’ (Lattas 1993:108). Just what is Swayze up to with those children? Offering a coin to teach kids to love capitalism – something like the role of Santa in the West. A commodified social contract. Is there no alternative to the market here? Cities becomes sites for the deal – just a glorified employment exchange. Marx shows that it is capital which travels (it circulates) while labour, even where it moves a little – as in vagabondage, urban migration, labour migrates to sell itself – is soon disciplined. Of course, without labour to make things move in the first place there could be no capital. Who, after al, built Calcutta? Still, the mystification of the social foundation of capital begins with a trick. In the Economic Notebooks of 1857-8 (The Grundrisse), Marx sets out this moment in vivid, if abstracted, ‘sketch’:

when the great English landowners dismissed their retainers, who had consumed with them the surplus produce of their land; when their tenant farmers drove out the small cottagers, etc., then a mass of living labour power was thrown on to the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense [eine Masse, die in doppeltem Sinn frei war]: free from the old client or bondage relationships and any obligatory services, and free also from all goods and chattels, from every objective and material form of being, free of all property. It was reduced either to the sale of its labour capacity or to beggary, vagabondage or robbery as its only source of income. History records that it tried the latter first, but was driven off this road and on to the narrow path which led to the labour market, by means of gallows, pillory and whip (Marx 1857/1986:431 [1857/1974:406])

The goods that had previously been consumed by the feudal lords and their retainers, and the released produce of the land, were now thrown on to the exchange market, as were those who would be henceforth known as labourers. The basis of this trick is that the sale of labour power must be instilled by disciplinary force – the gallows, the workhouse, the prison (Michel Foucault’s work on asylums, clinics, punishments etc., emerges from here) – and so becomes the only ‘choice’. Even the poorhouses and their charity instill the discipline of work (only Dickens’ Oliver dares ask for ‘more’ in literary versions, no doubt there were many ‘Olivers’). That this was conceived by Marx as part and parcel of capitalist development can be confirmed from other (re)writings of almost the same paragraph.

In Capital Marx returns more than once[3] to this scene:

For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense [frei in dem Doppelsinn], that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power (Marx 1867/1967:169 [1867/1975:183, notice how the rewritten version is more elegant – it is worth keeping in mind, at a time when The Grundrisse seems more often read and quoted – even here – that Capital was the text actually prepared for readers])

That this meeting in the market is no equal exchange is the trick of all tricks. Though it would seem that in the marketplace the capitalist offers a ‘fair’ price – money for labour, wages, and that the entire history of reformist unions has been to ensure the ‘fair trade’ of this exchange – this is of course the big deception of capitalist appropriation, since the capitalist does not pay for every hour that the labourer works (nor for all the costs of reproducing labour power). Marx writes: ‘An exchange of equivalents occurs, [but it] is merely the surface layer of a [system of] production which rests on the appropriation of alien labour without exchange, but under the guise of exchange’ (Marx 1857/1986:433). Here, at the crucial point of the labour theory of value, the expansion of the trick of the market is played out in the coin of wages, and this trick is the foundation of the city as labour-exchange, as Marx discusses in a passage that sets the whole movement out clearly:

The other circumstances which e.g., in the 16th century increased the mass of circulating commodities as well as money, created new needs and therefore raised the exchange value of native products, etc., increased prices, etc., – all these fostered the dissolution of the old relations of production, accelerated the separation of the worker from the objective conditions of his own reproduction, and thus hastened the transformation of money into capital. Nothing is therefore more foolish than to conceive of the original formation of capital as having created and accumulated the original conditions of production – means of subsistence, raw materials, instruments – and then having offered them to workers stripped of them. For it was monetary wealth which had partly helped to strip of these conditions of labour power of the individuals capable of work. In part this process of separation proceeded without the intervention of monetary wealth. Once the formation of capital had reached a certain level, monetary wealth could insinuate itself as mediator between the objective conditions of life thus become free and the freed but also uprooted and dispossessed living labour powers, and buy the one with the other. As regards the formation of monetary wealth itself, prior to its transformation into capital, this belongs to the prehistory of the bourgeois economy. Usury, trade, urbanisation and the development of government finance which these made possible, play the main role here (Marx 1857/1986:432)

This moment is exported universally and urbanisation plays a main role. It will be no surprise to learn that the ‘veiled slavery of the wage-workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world’ (Marx 1867/1967:759-60) – Marx adds a footnote that there were ‘ten slaves to one free man’ in the English West Indies, ‘in the French fourteen to one, in the Dutch twenty-three for one’ (Marx 1867/1967:760n). The labourers separated from their social means of production are thus named in English legislation as the ‘free labouring poor’, or the ‘idle poor’ or the ‘labouring poor’, a terminology which even the ‘sycophant’ Edmund Burke, ‘in the pay of the English oligarchy’, called ‘execrable political cant’ (Marx 1867/1967:760n, – Marx asks us to judge Burke’s good faith here alongside his other pronouncements to the effect that the ‘laws of commerce are the laws of nature and therefore the laws of god’[4]). The city is the site of the natural’ disciplining of labour, and this is achieved on the basis of a coined counterfeit. Again in another part of Volume 1 of Capital labourers are ‘free workers in a double sense’ [Frei Arbeiter in dem Doppelsinn, 1867/1975:742]:

The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale (Marx 1867/1967:714)

Marx’s story of the development of labour for sale as a world-wide system was only a ‘sketch’ (though the history of this expropriation is written ‘in letters of blood and fire’ (Marx 1867/1967:715). But in a note to the editors of the paper Otechestvennye Zapiski in the last years of his life, Marx warned that the chapter which set this out in the most detail – chapter xxvii – should not be ‘transformed’ from a historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe to a ‘theory of the general course fatally imposed upon all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed’ (Marx 1878 in Shanin 1983:136). Far too often the technical abstractions necessary in setting out Marx’s Capital which begins with commodities and expands in complexity to encompass trade, circulation of capital, rent etc., lead hasty readers to orthodox fixities and dogma. Nevertheless, the general point of the expansion of the logic of market exchange can be illustrated thus.

There is little need to go further into the hagiographic mode of repeating Marx as oracle. There are sufficient examples. In any study of the ways colonialism ‘had to use force to make the indigenous populations accept the commodity form’ (Cleaver 1979:77), the various examples would range from slavery and death to persuasion and, today, co-options of all kinds. Cleaver lists ‘massacre, money taxes, or displacement to poor land’ as the ways that capital dealt with resistance and refusal to be put to work. On the basis of this comes the ‘civilising’ mission of the West, that would teach ‘backward’ peoples the values of thrift, discipline and saving.

Many heathens saved, no doubt. Mother would be proud. Patrick Swayze himself says it was a near revelation to work in Calcutta. The point is that here city building, civilising mission, urbanisation – whether through the mechanism of the sketch, or variations such as in-migration from the countryside, other strategies of ‘development’ (such as the weavers herded into the factories under the discipline of the coin) etc., reinforces the ramparts of the third world city as a market with no alternative, as a glorified labour exchange, and all the Mother Teresa’s and coin tricks that can be marshaled should not be able to disguise such a trap.

Perhaps this is far too harsh. But then the city of Calcutta suffers from a bad press, as does development. I am resolutely not against development.[5] The problem is the fetishisation of development and capital as a kind of juggernaut beyond control, and of course, the question of control by whom. The circulation and expansion of capital today is fetishised as speed. So:

There is nothing to regret, the world moves in every which way, men and women cross the planet every which way, through interposed images and sounds, or directly through the displacement of their own person. But let us immediately pick up the paradox. Everything circulates: the types of music, the advertising slogans, the tourists, the computer viruses, the industrial subsidiaries and, at the same time, everything seems to freeze, to be stationary, as the differences fade between things … everything has become interchangeable, equivalent within standardised spaces (Guattari 1992:123)

But what actually moves? – Products to the market, images, sites? The market and the city, city images and the factory – the shopping centre? Swayze to the children (dirty dancing)? Or labour? Is revolution (the movement) more than a metaphor? Against immigration laws. Against roads as the warehouses of just-in-time delivery. Other struggles circulate here.

So what is in the traveller’s suitcase? An old book. In The Age of Revolution Hobsbawn notes that until the industrial revolution Europe had always imported more from the East than it had sold there (Hobsbawn 1975:34). Balance of trade. But with the industrialisation of cloth production and the rise of the Manchester mills – corresponding to the destruction of the rural and village or ‘artisanal’ weaving in India (sometimes by way of the amputation of weaver’s thumbs by the Company – a blood curdling remembrance of the Razor’s Edge) – weavers were forced into agriculture or into the urban centres and so into the machine shops and warehouses. This is the urban discipline of the money-wage system. The machine shops, which were of course first in Manchester, but soon also industrialisation moved them to India and machines abstracted and multiplied the same skills that had been the – refined – preserve of the weavers’ looms. Technology replaced the weaver at the very same time it brought them into the factory to work.[6]

By ruining handicraft production in other countries, machinery forcibly converts them into fields for the supply of its raw material. In this way East India was compelled to produce cotton, wool, hemp, jute and indigo for Great Britain (Marx 1867/1967:451)

And, summarising a period of English manufacturing monopoly, Marx notes:

1830 glutted markets, great distress; 1831 to 1833 continued depression, the monopoly of the trade with India and China withdrawn from the East India Company; 1834 great increase of factories and machinery, shortness of hands. The new poor law furthers the migration of agricultural labourers into the factory districts … 1835 great prosperity, contemporaneous starvation of the hand-loom weavers (Marx 1867/1967:455)

Be it in Britain or in the ‘Eastern markets’ this violent conjunction of capital extraction, technological development and urbanisation has transformed the world under the sign of the coin…

Thinking about weavers who now produce for the souvenir trade as technological development brings mass tourism to India adds another thread to the discussion. In this context I want to look at the ways a tourist experiences the city. The vehicles for this are the codifications that surround travel and capital. Here I mean to play on different meanings of travelling capital – the travelling capital of Europe’s expansion, the physical movement of people, power, meanings and money, the exchanges of people, power, meaning and coins, and the capital of this complex. Capital as money on the move, but also the movement of the capital – a movement concerned with what happens in that old capital of Empire, Calcutta.

The Maid was in the garden…

The social character of activity, as also the social form of the product and the share of the individual in production, appears here as something alien to and existing outside the individuals; not as their relation to each other, but as their subordination to relationships existing independently of them and arising from the collision [Anstoss – also could be ‘bump’, echoes of rubbing coin] between different individuals. The general exchange of activities and products, which has become the condition of life for every single individual, their mutual connection, appears to the individuals themselves alien, independent, as a thing. In exchange value, the social relationship of persons is transformed into a social attitude of things; personal capacity into a capacity of things (Marx 1857/1986:94, [1857/1974])

Let me leave money to one side for a moment if I can – since it is the equivalence of all things (a point to come back to, see Spivak’s critique of the limits of Derrida’s saying ‘hello’ to Marx, where she shows that Marx is exhorting the worker not to fall for the trick of the money-based explanations of the capitalist, but to remember that labour power, spent in time, is productive[7] [Spivak 1995]). It might be worth looking to what first of all travellers get for their currency. Today, as ever, when you arrive (after the travellers cheque swap), the first thing you need is a guide. Among the myriad cultural productions that make up the representations of Calcutta available to visitors today – films, books, photographs – by far the most explicit representational modes are those produced for the immediate consumption of tourists. Maps of the city, guide books and postcards of monuments present the city in handy, portable, two-dimensionally convenient ways and it is these mechanisms which govern (discipline) social relationships for the traveller. Touts are available outside the hotels offering all manner of services (this in fact noted so often in the texts of visitors it becomes a trope of the eastern city of iniquity – again the City of Joy and Lévi-Strauss hotel arrival scenes).

photocredit Chitrabani>

Get a map. Finding a way through the city is a major project for all visitors. ‘New’ cities are easy to get lost in and so guidebooks and maps are necessary and monuments become landmarks oriented more towards the city than the histories they memorialise. Such markers offer a key to the ways a city can be made and experienced. Residents and visitors alike would often be lost without reference points; but tourists ‘need’ maps and guide books which calibrate with expectations and evocations of the city formed before arrival (often as a place of immanent exotic adventure) and often throughout the stay. Maps are an adjunct to the monumental vision which orients the traveller in a foreign place when the entire world is something to be seen (as an open market – or the phantasmagoria of the world fair as described by Marx in 1865). At the same time, however, for some a kind of ‘alternative’ traveller protocol requires a renunciation of the convenience of the guide in favour of a more individualistic, and ‘authentic’ exploration. Yet even this alternative is guided by a host of expectations and prior mappings – of Calcutta, India, of the third world – and which as often as not has little correspondence with local residents’ versions of their city. Calcutta’s global image – a teeming poverty Ma T enhanced frightscape – gives it a bad press everywhere else, but not there. Another counterfeit. Alternative, disengaged or prefigured, the visitor’s experience of the city fits pre-packed units like a code so that physical representational ‘souvenirs’ of maps, images of monuments and postcards become a mode, if often kitsch, of inscribing presence in, or of, a place.

In 1989 a Central Government edict declared illegal any map of India which did not comply with topographical Survey of India maps. In the intersections between Calcutta’s political history and the seemingly more innocuous trappings of tourism like the paraphernalia of maps, guidebooks and souvenirs is where I would want to use the work of Henri Lefebvre who raises questions about the relation between mapping and travel when he suggests the if ‘the maps and guides are to be believed a veritable feast of authenticity awaits the tourist’ (Lefebvre 1974/1991:84). In his book The Production of Space, Lefebvre argues that it is capitalism which has produced ‘space’ in such a way that, with the aid of the tourist map, a ‘ravenous consumption’ raids the landscape. He argues that ‘Capitalism and neo-capitalism have produced abstract space, which includes the ‘world of commodities’, its ‘logic’ and its world-wide strategies, as well as the power of money and that of the political state’ (Lefebvre 1974/1991:53). A vast network links the power of the state through a complex of financial institutions, major production centres, motorways, airports and ‘information lattices’ which lead to the ‘disintegration’ of the town as anything other than a space to be consumed (Lefebvre 1974/1991:53). Reading this body of work in Calcutta, particular attention here should be paid to representations of monuments and bridges, maps, guides, souvenirs – the code – particularly the Victoria Memorial, and the massive expanse of Howrah Bridge, which in postcards become equivalents.

<photograph of Queen Vic Memorial – postcard, or of Swayze at Howrah>

But these maps mark out another experience more clearly. The orientation of visiting Calcutta – as metaphor of inscrutable India – is the coin trick of Patrick Swayze. This is the market moment exoticised – the urban sophisticate meets the uncomprehending – pre-market relation – others. The world-wide strategy of the commodity logic, as Lefebvre calls it, appears in the evangelical coin trick played on a few kids on the street with the same violence as the all too bloody massacres of colonial genocide.

And down came a blackbird…

in order for there to be counterfeit money, the counterfeit money must not give itself with certainty to be counterfeit money; and this perhaps is also the intentional dimension, that is, the credit, the act of faith that structures all money, all experience or all consciousness of money, be it true or false (Derrida 1991/1992:95)

Next to the map in the back-pack is the image machine. When travel is a signifier in the contemporary moment, the camera is never far. Click click. The tourist has become associated with the mechanical eye, making miniature equivalences of everything it sees. Cities, people, poverty – all become photogenic. Photogenic Calcutta, Cinematic cities, the videographic construction of the subcontinent. To get into this we might take up these details presented through the artifice of the camera. I have become interested in another coin trick – a scene where a traveller takes a photograph of a destitute family living on the street in a congested part of town, and gives five rupees in exchange. You can be paid for the (perceived) misery of your condition. Poverty framed. This is not an unfamiliar or atypical moment on the ‘banana-pancake trail’ of Western budget tourism in the third world. For travellers at the front-line of capitalist expansion today, photographs of the ‘locals’ are also monumental souvenirs. The budget travel Lonely Planet Guide Book, India: A Survival Kit, comments on the propriety of paying for snaps. But its editor Tony Wheeler, millionaire, also once suggested that in situations where locals demanded they be photographed you could carry your camera without film and set it so the flash goes off but nothing else – a counterfeit photo. The scene of coin for photo exchange has a long long history. It goes back to the early days of black and white cinema, The Razor’s Edge (version one, starring Tyrone Power, 1946, directed by Edmund Golding), back further to the introduction of the camera into India (Phalke learning tricks from a magician [Dadasaheb Phalke introduced film technology to India]). Back to the coin exchanged for membership of an anti-colonial organization (one rupee Congress membership). Back to the exchange of coin for the cloth of the Bengali weavers, back to the coins paid by the Company to Suraj-ud-duala and the (in)famous black hole/black box, further back to the coins paid by Job Charnock to establish a British factory on the shore of the Hooghly River.

Since the story of the Black Hole must be told here as well, it can be in a critical version: Marx calls the incident a ‘sham scandal’ (Marx 1947:81). In an extensive collection of notes made on Indian history, Marx comments that on the evening of June 21, 1756, after the Governor of Calcutta had ignored the order of Subadar Suraj-ud-duala to ‘raze all British fortifications’ in the city:

Suraj came down on Calcutta in force … fort stormed, garrison taken prisoners, Suraj gave orders that all the captives should be kept in safety till the morning; but the 146 men (accidentally, it seems) were crushed into a room 20 feet square and with but one small window; next morning (as Holwell himself tells the story), only 23 were still alive; they were allowed to sail down the Hooghly. It was ‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’, over which the English hypocrites have been making so much sham scandal to this day. Suraj-ud-duala returned to Murshidabad; Bengal now completely and effectually cleared of the English intruders (Marx 1947:81 my italics)

Marx also reports on the subsequent retaliation against and defeat of Suraj-ud-duala by Lord Clive (‘that Great Robber’ as he calls him elsewhere Marx 1853/1978:86), and Clive’s 1774 suicide after his ‘cruel persecution’ by the directors of the East India Company (Marx 1947:88). There seem to be very good reasons to conclude that the black hole incident is counterfeit. The single report from a ‘survivor’ some months after Clive’s savage response to Suraj-ud-duala’s occupation of Calcutta – the famous/notorious Battle of Plassey – reads very much like a justification forged to deflect criticisms of brutality on the part of the British forces[8]. The black hole is a kind of souvenired past of imperial history faked to stand in for the theft of a city.

If only there was better documentary evidence for this tale. Where are the paparazzi when you need them? In so many different ways photographs are souvenirs of the experience of experience. They signify travel. The trick here is the incommensurability of value in the photograph that is taken on the streets of Calcutta, the coin exchanged for the privilege, the value of the image which is so difficult to calculate…

Hitchens, photocredit Chitrabani>

The reinvestment of these images, these mimetic aids for storytelling, and the various contexts and uses for such stories should make me cautious. The images circulate again in the slower rhythms of allegedly scholarly application. At the same time that we write these histories, today, the travel guide, the cinema, the documentary film, television and the text participate in an uneven exchange between cities like Calcutta/Mumbai and those of London or Manchester. Same as it ever was?

In the midst of an excellent essay on Phalke, Ashish Rajadhyaksha quotes E.B. Havell, Principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta as one of those that complained of the loss of the artisan’s skills in the face of technology, and Havell’s analysis seems to be sound as he noted that the handloom workers were driven into powerloom factories and that the ‘most skilled weavers in the world’ were being ‘concentrated in the great Anglo-Indian industrial cities [i.e. Calcutta] and delivered, body and soul, into the hands of Indian and European capitalists’ (Havell in Rajadhyaksha 1993:51).

Perhaps it is no accident the the most prominent site of Mother Teresa’s death cult, which provides a short-term ‘home for dying destitutes’ – those spat out by the machine city, is in Kalighat. The extent to which the Teresa image has blocked any other view of the city but those of the international clichés of teeming squalor, hunger, poverty and shit has not been often enough remarked. Its no coincidence that the bad press attached to this city coincides with the emegence of anti-imperialist truggle. Another mode of discipline. Also:

It is interesting to note that the cult of the goddess Kali was practically unknown before the eighteenth century, a period when a great change was taking place in the social and political life of Bengal. The Kali cult in its present form owes its inspiration to Krishnanada Agamavagisa … it was popularised by Maharaja Krishnachandra … before whose eyes the establishment of the East India Company took place. Many of the local rebellions that took place after the establishment of Company rule – e.g. the Sanyasi rebellion, the Chuar rebellion and so on – were inspired in the name of Kali (Battacharya in Rajadhyaksha 1993:60)

It is reported, by Moorhouse, that assassins who were devotees of Kali knotted a coin in one end of a cloth – something like a large cotton scarf – to improve their grip when strangling someone. What then is exchanged today? Engels in Manchester, Marx in London, their texts on colonialism in India are often discussed, but always in terms of past histories. All this is interesting enough. The conjunction of rebellions against the Company, the role of technology and Capital, the travels of money, cotton, wefts and weaves, and the violence of extraction, industrialisation and urbanisation under Empire – all this can form the subject of interesting discussion, but only insofar as to stress the continuities with extraction today, colonialism now. Coins and charity are violence. For a cinematic Kali cult. Photogenic Hinduism.

A Kali cult? The fear and trembling that this inspires sets tea-cups a shaking. The fear of the demonic image of Kali for the British should be explored, but with a caution in light of both an inverted exoticism (of dark satanic imagery that fascinates the Western traveller) and in the context of rampant Hindutva and the rise of the BJP. Any danger however that the memory of resistance in a Kali politics leads too easily into religious chauvinism has been countered by the mobilisation of the secular forces under a new democratic communist movement, of various stripes, in West Bengal. Just as the struggle against imperialism begins in Calcutta, so does a contemporary anti-capitalist politics. A struggle against extraction and exploitation which continues to be facilitated by the movement of products and profits – work conditions on the tea plantations and the warehouses, back and forth with privatisation and trade delegations – and all this with little yet said of a cultural politics of the most prominent local Calcuttan figures, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Charu Muzumdar and Jyoti Basu, all of whom have become iconic and even cinematic, subject to the movement of the image and of meanings, and of the memory, or mimesis. So let us remember what currency plays here.

To make sense of this overdetermined scene where coin tricks are played with photographs, I would have Patrick Swayze turn towards Marx. Could it be possible that he would learn to read the ‘double’ structure in Marx – that of the commodity and the money form? Instead of the strange motivations which have him forgoing his usual $7 million fee for a mere $I million because he ‘so wanted to do this film for the people of Calcutta’ (why not do ‘Dirty Dancing 2 and donate the spare $6 Million?) it is possible to force a reading lesson which would have him consider his position in relation to colonial travel and the othering experience of the Western visitor. Here our hero could reflect upon the motive of profit and the imposition of a commodity form on a non-commodity relation (if that), the disguise of this deception in the trick of the giving of charity, specifically of the coin passed to a beggar in the scene of tourism as advocated by the guidebooks, and the ways this offers a currency for thinking the relations of profit and its fetish disguises. But maybe Patrick doesn’t read this sort of literature. No matter, in the scene of the coin passed to a child, the coin trick as a slight of hand that impresses/mystifies the locals, the whole of Marx, the deceit of money, the city and capital is displayed. The coin exchange initiates a complex web of industrialisation and transition, the investment of meanings and images, the accumulation and speculation, and the inexorable spiral that leads from lost thumbs and Cola wars. (Thums Up to Pepsi Generations). ‘The City of Joy’ is merely the narrative condensation of so many of these developments.

The coin trick underlies the scene of deception in colonial relations as well as in the economics of tourism, gifts, knowledge and meanings. It is important here to note the similarities and differences between taking a photo, buying a souvenir, giving a coin in exchange or charity and the varied experiences these imply. As I draw examples from the travel tales of Somerset Maugham, from popular cinema such as The City of Joy and The Razor’s Edge, it is the example discussed by Derrida, Baudelaire’s passage on deceitful gifting and that counterfeit trick of this gift, and Charlie Chaplin’s more subaltern rendering of such a scene, that suggests the coin as the icon of contemporary politics.

Third world destined movie star travellers offering charity to the poor only help, guide and serve themselves in a show of how big (hearted) they are. This is the essence of the potlatch, with a grand humility in charity, even as they disavow all they do as ‘just a drop of water in the ocean’ – what sacrifice. A transformatory project for redistributive justice does not begin with this coin. What it demands is a rethink of the front-line role of the charitable organisations, of Western NGOs, of even those progressive ‘fair trade’ or alternative development types who would, for example, advocate revolution in Bengal while leaving their own little backwaters – say, London – untouched by such militant fervour.

There is an alternative to the extension of the market to all corners of the planet, and it is not a universal gift service. Charity contributes nothing but the maintenance of the trick. Travellers who don’t go further than the doorstep of their hotel miss the point.

There remains much more to be done to work out how to travel to Calcutta. And this has, of course, been a partial study. Let us take Derrida at  his word on travel. In an essay on the gift and charity, Derrida identifies two ‘risks’ of travelogues in the possible meanings of the term: ‘The first is that of selectivity’ and he describes a ‘recit raisonne’ as a ‘narrative that, more than others, filters or sifts out the supposedly significant features – and thus begins to censor’ (Derrida 1993:197-8); and the second, from the first; ‘raisonner also signifies, in this case, to rationalise … active overinterpretation’ (Derrida 1993:198). These two themes of perspective and ordering selection are the themes of this work which take up Derrida’s call (his is not the only call of this sort) alongside a Marxist analysis of money, for a ‘systematic reflection on the relations between tourism and political analysis’ at a time when tourism has become highly ‘organised’. Derrida writes that such an analysis ‘would have to allow a particular place to the intellectual tourist (writer or academic) who thinks he or she can, in order to make them public, translate his or her ‘travel impressions’ into a political diagnostic’ (Derrida 1993:215). The politics of coin tricks remains to be unpacked.



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[1]Half way through Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss, describes his 1950 visit to Calcutta. He arrived at Calcutta airport, mid-century amidst a torrential downpour, and was quickly whisked away to his hotel. From there he describes the city: ‘the large towns of India are slum areas … Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humours, secretions and running sores: all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organised protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs to prosper. To every individual, any street, footpath or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth … the tragic intensity in the beggar’s gaze as his eyes meet yours … could easily be transformed into a howling mob if, by allowing your compassion to overcome your prudence, you gave the doomed creatures some hope of charity’ (Lévi-Strauss 1955/1973:134-5)

[2] The City of Joy originally was a book by Dominique Lapierre about a Polish priest doing charity work in Calcutta. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi’s Central Government gave British director Roland Joffe (‘The Mission’, ‘The Killing Fields’) permission to make a film of the book. Despite Joffe’s arguments that the film would “project the indomitable spirit of the slum-dwellers of Calcutta” (Telegraph Dec 24, 1989), the CPI-M  Government of Bengal withdrew Joffe’s permission later in the year on the grounds that there was “no need to show only the slum-dwellers to show the indomitable spirit of Calcuttans” (Telegraph Dec 24, 1989). Debates about censorship and freedom of information raged over the following months as Joffe refused to accept the decision and conscripted prominent Calcutta personalities to his cause. Coffee house discussion turned often to the merits of not only the proposed Joffe film, but also other filmed representations of the city. The stars of ‘City of Joy’ were Patrick Swayze, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi.

[3] Also: ‘They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working-class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed’ (Marx 1867/1967:734). Recently it was Missionaries who exported this ‘necessary discipline’ by chastising throughout the world, today it is the NGOs and alternative credit banks who do so.

[4] See also the section in Capital where Marx analyzes the notion of laziness versus industriousness as a parable of sin – ‘Adam bit the apple’(Marx 1867/1967:713)

[5] ‘What would be the meaning of a destruction of capitalism that would be at the same time the destruction of capitalism’s achievements? Obviously it would be the crudest possible denial of Marx’s lucidity. The humanity that would have destroyed the work of the industrial revolution would be the poorest of all time; the memory of the recent wealth would finish the job of making that humanity unbearable’ (Bataille 1967/1988:170). For a useful corrective to simplistic renditions of Marx’s lucidity on the role of industry in India, see Ahmad 1992 chapter 6.

[6]And back and forth – see Virinder Kalra’s 1997 Ph.D. study of Kashmiri workers in Oldham near Manchester, and his forthcoming discussion in Kalra and McLaughlin 1988.

[7] I have several times to a greater or lesser extent followed Spivak’s arguments in my own work, on Calcutta (Hutnyk 1996), on Derrida (Hutnyk 1997) and on Clifford (Hutnyk 1998).

[8] For a comprehensive and readable discussion see Macfarlane 1975.