Going nowhere: on Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (Reaktion Books, 2020) provides us with a renewed cartography of the labor transformations in the wake of automation and the cybernetic revolution, which has ultimately created a “vast service sector” (9). Although at first sight Smith’s book seems to be preoccupied with questions of technology innovation in the post-fordist epoch, the central vortex of the book sheds light on the notion of “servant economy” that has become the fast-evolving segment of today’s job-market. Smith notes that the expansion of the servant economy propelled by automation “poses special obstacles to organization and action in a fragmented workforce. The rise of the “servant economy”, increasingly forces workers into smaller, spatially dispersed workplaces, where they carry out labor-intensified production processes…. deemed low-skill occupations and therefore poorly paid” (14). The new region of the service economy is an effect of the exceptionality of capital form self-abdication where unemployment becomes an existential problem for the social fabric. 

The nuanced analysis undertaken by Smith shows how the fragmented spatialization of labor has become the byproduct of the automation in which control, optimization, and feedback ensemble a new regime of total calculation. Already in 1956, Friedrich Pollock warned of a potential “totalitarian government” that could lead to mass unemployment. Pollock’s Cold War predicament was not off target: the fear of totalitarian unemployment (Habermas would call it crisis of legitimation) was answered with a total (service) economy that compensated for the paradox of stagnation of profit growth. The encompassing force of real subsumption through compartmentalization of services rendered effective James Boggs’ “nowhere to go” in the final dispensation of historical capitalism.

The phase of stagnation announces the “productivity paradox”. Smith writes glossing Mason: “If ours is an age defined by monopolies, cheap credit, rent-seeking and asset bubbles, it is not due to the concerted efforts of elites keen to forestall or smother in the cradle a new, sustained period of productivity gains….despite claims to the contrary, the weather of stagnation and drift that has settle over the advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s, and special since the turn of the century is attributable in no small part technological inertia” (41). The boom of “diversionary gadgets” are on the side of unproductiveness; and, as Ure argues, “do nothing towards the supply of the physical necessities of society” (43). But perhaps diversion usage accounts for the mobilization of the medium of the new phase of automated capitalism. In other words, precisely because traditional form of political legitimacy has crumbled, zero value technology becomes the compensatory psychic equilibrium within the process of abstraction of profit. The subjective dimension of the “medium” in the new phase of automation operates to drive dynamism in the “historic low” of labor productivity growth and the disjointed structural relation between economic growth and rise in wages (64, 69).

One of the conclusions that one can derive from Smith’s rich political economy empirical analysis is that the expansion of the service economy is fundamentally an anti-institutional phenomenon, both at the level of social forms (unions, movements, legal grounds for disputes) as well as in terms of mediations of exchange (intellectual labor, shadow-work, spatial relations to urban centers, etc.). In this sense, the absolutization of the regional “service economy” is the reallocation of reduced labor. In the same way that all ‘originary accumulation’ is an ‘onging accumulation’; the “crisis” of the economy is always already the recurrent stagnation of growth. But Smith notes with precision: “services therefore appear to obscure more than it clarifies” (80). This new process of rationalization mobilizes the valorization of the outside, that is, of every non-market sphere. This process draws a specific ordo rationality: “The true “advances” such as they are, have been in the domination of the labor process by employers: their ability to coerce more labor out of a given hour by means of refinement in supervision, oversight, and workplace discipline” (112). 

Mirroring the optimal logistics of cybernetic and automation processes, one could claim that the expansion of the service economy initiates a regime of governmentality that allows for the attenuation and cost-benefit management of flows. Now I think one can clearly see that “service” is not just an avatar to formal processes of value, but also, as Ivan Illich showed, a secularized theological concept of the Christian notion of hospitality. According to Illich, hospitality was transformed into a use of power and money to provide services and needs [1]. For the ex-Catholic priest, this meant nothing less than the corruption of human freedom, which became tied to the logistics of equivalence. This is why, more than an economic theory, neoliberalism needs to defend an ever-expanding freedom of the subject. In the context of deep social atomization, the service economy self-legitimizes itself as absolute freedom in the social (141). 

At the end of the book, Smith notes that in the wake of automation the relation between political struggles and the new economic composition begin to diverge. There is on one side the model of the teachers and that of the expendables (146-147). In a sense, the “nowhere land” registered by Boggs in the 60s has only intensified, as modern politics forms no longer seem up to the task in the face of total extraction and exclusion. If we think of arguably the most successful leftist political strategy in the last decade or so (the strongest cases have been in Latin America and Spain), the left populism rooted in the theory of hegemony; it becomes clear that after the empirical analysis of Smart Machines, any set of ‘equivalential demands’ is already a demand for exploitation within the regime of the service economy. During this months of pandemic the right has been calling for the immediate reintegration into the economy, bring to bear the internal production at the heart of the project of hegemony. Rather than thinking about a new multitude or unified subject of class, the expendables that Smith situates at the outskirts of the metropolis (the ‘hinterland’), constitute perhaps a new experiential texture of life that is no longer moved by representation but rather expression; it is no longer defined by class, but consumption; it is not interested in negation, but rather in “discovery” (148). Indeed, the new marginalized surplus population does not constitute a new “subject”, but an energy that seeks an exodus from the ruins of the political given the collapse of the whole framework of leftist hegemony [2]. It seem reasonable to think that it is precisely in the threshold of Boggs’ call for a “discovery” (a movement of anabasis), devoid of place and time, where the unfathomable stagnation of our epoch is defied.

.

.

Notes

1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005). 

2. “Onwards Barbarians”, Endnotes, December 2020: https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians

Hölderlin in Agamben. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is no question that Hölderlin occupies a central place in Giorgio Agamben’s work, although he always appears within a specific strategic deployment. Of course, it might be the case that Hölderlin is always present in instances where he is not directly cited or thematized, but in the following note I want to record four instances where Hölderlin appears in different phases of Agamben’s thinking. These notes are preliminary for a larger work in progress that looks at the status of the comic as a potential force for a transfigured politics, which is informed, although not limited by Hölderlin’s work. Hölderlin occupies, after all, the entry point to L’uso dei corpi (2014) in relation to the well-known maxim “the use of the proper”; the territory where the (modal) ontology will be measured. However, esoterically Agamben’s incorporation of the German poet suggest a ‘way out’ from the tragic politicity of modernity. It might useful here to recall Schmitt’s annotation in Glossarium about what Hölderlin symbolized in the larger picture of modern German thought: “Youth without Goethe (Max Kommerell), that was for us since 1910 in concrete youth with Hölderlin, i.e. the transition from optimistic-ironic-neutralizing genius (genialismus) to pessimistic-active-tragic genialism (genialismus). But it remained within the genialistic framework, yes, deepened it into infinite depths. Norbert von Hellingrath is more important than Stefan George and Rilke.” (18.5. 1948) [1]. To overturn Hölderlin as the figure of the tragic caesura and witness to the crisis of “distance” in modernity is most definitely at stake here in order to avoid (subjective) conditions for something like an Enlightenment renewal. More broadly, it could be productive to think of Hölderlin as the poetic site that grants Agamben a possibility of thinking the event beyond the dependency of messianism and history, now displaced by the relation between language and world. 

a) As early as in Stanzas (1977) Agamben writes about Hölderlin: “The name of Hölderlin – of a poet, that is, for whom poetry was above all problematic and whom often hoped that it could be raised to the level of the mēchane (mechanical instrumental) of the ancients so that its procedures could be calculate and taught – and the dialogue that with its utterance engages a thinker who no longer designs his own mediation with the name of “philosophy”, are invoked here to witness the urgency, for our culture, of rediscovering the unity of our own fragmented word” (xvii) [2]. Hölderlin occupies here the site of antiphilosophy, in which the event of language does not longer coincide with a structure of the subject, but of the potentiality of “saying”; a sayability in which fragmentation removes any commanding closure of language. The event of appearing and bring to conclusion (in the book on Paul, Agamben will associate it with the rhetorical figure of the enjambment in the poem) gains primacy over formalization. 

b) In another early book, L’uomo senza contenuto (1994) Agamben takes up the question of fragmentation of language in Hölderlin but this time provides a specific category: rhythm. On the chapter about the original structure of the work of art he writes: “Everything is rhythm, the entire destiny of man is one heavenly rhythm, must as every work of art is one rhythm, and everything swings from the poetizing lips of the god”. This statement was passed down to us by Hölderlin’s own hand. […]. What Hölderlin’s sentence says appears at first blush too obscure and general to tempt us to take into consideration in a philosophy query on the work of art. However, if we want to submit to its proper meaning, that is, if we want, in order to corrupt to it, to make it first of all into a problem for us, then the question that immediately arises is: what is rhythm, which Hölderlin attributes to the work of art as it original characteristic?” (94) [3]. So, the category of rhythm “holds men” epochally as a form of incommensurable distance with the world, which Agamben relates to an-archic original structure of dwelling. For Agamben this step-back to the “original site” vis-à-vis rhythm releases “art” as poesis from a productivist “destiny”. So, it would be obvious to say that rhythm, insofar it abolishes the production, it also thematizes the ethical life as the form of life (which is why Agamben also attaches Hölderlin as a counter-figure of the notion of “vocation”) [4]. There is no form of life without rhythm in nearness to the common ground. 

c) In Autoritratto nello studio (2017), Agamben glosses (a) and (b), that is, he recognizes the importance of Von Hellingrath reconstruction of the late Hölderlin of the Pindaric translations and the fragmentary syntax, but now situates him at the center of modernity. Agamben writes: “Walser noted, as Hölderlin before him, that the world had become simply unhabitable. And there was not even the possibility of amending it…I am convinced that Hölderlin in his last thirty years of this life was not unhappy, as some professors of literature tend to describe him. On the contrary, Hölderlin was able to dream at his house without worrying about duties. The Tubingen tower and the clinic of Herisau: these are two places that we should never cease to reflect upon. What took place behind these walls – the rejection of reason by these two poets [Walser and Hölderlin] – is the most powerful rejection against our civilization” (140-141) [5]. So here Hölderlin, like Walser, is an epochal gestalt capable of generating the separation between thinking and doing, world and experience, which became totalized in the legitimacy of the modern. What could be interpreted as ‘domestic interiority’ for the poet becomes a symptom of a radical form of dwelling at the end of reason subsumed by nihilism.

d) Finally, in a recent essay published this year entitled “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Agamben goes a step further to qualify Hölderlin’s breakthrough, taking radical distance from his relation to the tragic and identifying him as a poet that must be read in a comic register. This is all the more surprising given that, as Agamben himself notes, there is almost no mention of comedy in Hölderlin’s prose, except in the review of Siegfried Schmid’s play The Heroine. And although it is true one could argue that Hölderlin undertook a destruction of the tragic poet in The death of Empedocles, as far as I am aware there has been no interpretation of Hölderlin as opening to the “comedy of life”, except for a brief mention, almost in passing, about his laughter by the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto [6]. Agamben concludes his essay suggesting that: “With this concept of “ordinary life” I should like to conclude my reflections, at least for the time being. Isn’t it precisely this ordinary life, what in the thirty-six years in the tower, Hölderlin’s life and poetry – or his “poetry” – have persistently sought to carry it out in an exemplary and funny way? And isn’t “ordinary” life the same as the “living” life (to live according to habitus and habits), which is distant and perfect in the last tower poems: When people go into the distance, living life …?” In any case, if Hegel defines the idyll as “the half descriptive, half lyrical poems […] and mainly nature, the seasons, etc., the subject matter”; then the tower poems – this extreme, incomparable poetic legacy of the West – are an idyll of the genre” (40) [7]. And here Hölderlin appears not just as another figure in “the age of the poets” (and the genialismus‘ commanding force), but rather as the moment in which the problem of life opens to its inoperosità. The unity of humanity now navigates the fragmented reality not through the subject, but rather through the singular form of life. Comedy, then, in the idyll genre in which life is freed from both desire and liberty.

.

.

Notes 

1. Carl Schmitt. Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1947 bis 1958 (Duncker & Humblot, 2015). 114.

2. Giorgio Agamben. Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1993).  

3. Giorgio Agamben. The Man without Content (Stanford U Press, 1999). 

4. Giorgio Agamben. “Vocazione e voce”, in La potenza del pensiero (Neri Pozza, 2005). 77-89.

5. Giorgio Agamben. Autoritratto nello studio (nottetempo, 2017). 

6. Andrea Zanzotto. “Con Hölderlin, una leggenda”, in Friedrich Hölderlin: Tutte le liriche (Mondadori, 2001). i-xxiv.

7. Giorgio Agamben. “Hölderlins antitragische Wendung”, Studi Germanici, 17, 2020. 27-40.

Friendship at the end of the world: On Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

The publication of Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020) marks an important break in contemporary thought, which has been seating comfortably for too long in the pieties of identity, culturalism, and politization. One of the most immediate effects of Afropessimism is how it unmasks the way in which identity and cultural hegemonic discourses, far from constituting a different horizon of the existing cliché, actually mitigate a spectacle of devices for the domestication of other possibilities of thought. Of course, some were aware of said spectacle, but now with Wilderson’s experiential writing the allure of subaltern subject position is finally destroyed from within. Wilderson’s account escapes two routes of the witness position: that of the personal memoir that contributes to a narrative of redemption; and on its reverse, that of testimonio, which in the postcolonial debates of the 1990s solicited a politics of alliance with the subaltern voice for a new politics of truth. In this sense, Wilderson’s Afropessimism is a post-hegemonic work through and through insofar as it destroys the hegemony of the citizen-subject of Liberalism, but also that of subaltern as a mere stock in the production of hegemony. As Wilderson claims early in the book “Black people embody a meta-aporia for political thought and action”, as such, Afropessimism is a radically unstable force that brings to bear the unthought of the most predomination critical paradigms of university discourse (Marxism, Postcolonial theory, feminism) as aggregation of politics of the subject  (13-14). 

Afropessimism is first and foremost a dislocation of the toolbox of critical of theory as always already complicit with the general movement of the imperial policing of thinking. The strategy is always the same when it comes to administrating a regime of reflexive order: posit a paradigm of a subject position and then mobilize it against other subjects. There is nothing radical about this validation; quite the contrary, it coincides with the arbitrary hierarchization of values proper to Liberalism’s current designs. Wilderson wants to destroy analogy just like he wants to be done with narrative of redemption, or ethical alliance since all of these are forms of reductions of the true experience of living at the “end of the world”. This is the apothegm from Fanon that creates the apocalyptic circuit in the book. What does it mean to live at the end of the world? This the vortex of Afropessimism, the atopic site that inscribes the existential conundrum of the Black form of life. The apocalyptic “end of the world” must be read as a concrete inhabitation of life, that is, “being at the end of the world entails Black folks at their best”, writes Wilderson (40). This entails that there is no world without Blacks, but Black experience is an incessant drift at the limit of the world as captured by the entrapment of Humanity. I take it that Wilderson means that “Afropessimism is Black folks at their best” in relation to a form of life at the level of experience that is not only constitutive of sociability, but that it also an intensity that rejects any domesticating efforts into a more “democratic” or “hegemonic” civil society. Under the rule of equivalent demands, where subjects and objects are exchanged (or camouflaged in the name of “Rights”), the Black can only constitute a “social death” that breaks any equilibrium, or that sustains the hylomorphism of its others (102). This goes to the heart of the articulation of hegemony, which for decades has been the leftist horizon of a good and democratic politics, but which for Wilderson amounts to the very logistics of the democratic plantation. In an important moment of the book, Wilderson argues against the theory of hegemony: 

“In the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society, ultimately accommodate only the satiable  demands  and  legible  conflicts  of civil society’s junior  partners  (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the  insatiable  demands and illegible  antagonisms of Blacks. In short, whereas such coalitions and social movements cannot be called the outright handmaidens of anti- Blackness, their rhetorical structures, political desire, and their emancipatory horizon are bolstered by a life- affirming  anti- Blackness; the death of Black desire.” (240)

There is no hegemony that is not conditioned by a non-subject, an abyss that marks the aggregation of their equivalent subjective demands. This is why the non-demand of the Black, who has nothing for exchange, remains at the limit of hegemony, or rather what I call a posthegemonic fissure, in which democratic desire and hegemonic articulation enter into an incommensurable zone. Given that blackness is the site of “social death…the first step toward the destruction if to assume one’s position and then burn the ship or the plantation from the inside out. However, as Black people we are often psychically unable and unwilling to assume this position. This is as understandable as it is impossible” (103). This is consistent with Wilderson’s label of Afropessimism as an aporetic meta-theoretical paradigm. The question of the possibility of an experiential exodus to an outside, and not just an internal limit to the metaphysics of Humanity is most definitely one question that one could raise about its “epistemological void” as parasitical to the infinite production of subjectivity (164). It is clear that by rejecting hegemony, Wilderson also has to give up any liberationist horizon at the service of a political project committed to Black emancipation. For Wilderson the legitimacy is somewhere else: “Afropessimism is not an ensemble of theoretical interventions that leads the struggle for Black liberation. One should think  of it as a theory  that is legitimate because it has secured a mandate from Black people at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper” (173). It is a rage that one could counterpose as the opposite of the subaltern politics of truth; in order words, it is a rage experienced against the “gratuitous violence” that divides the antagonism between a singular life and the world of the state of things and its people. 

The vortex of Wilderson’s Afropessisism, however, is not just the rejection of hegemonic articulation or the benevolent solidarity as administrated domination, it is rather the emphasis of a new world caesura that he frames in this way: “…the essential antagonism is the antagonism between Blacks and the world: the centrality of Black people’s social death, the grammar of suffering of the slave…” (174). This essential conflict stages the antagonism at the level of the debates about the frontier of Humanism, for which the Black, insofar as it is a figure of the non-subject, already acts an archipolitics that frees the intensification of any politics of liberation now transfigured as a liberation from politics [1]. This archipolitics dwells in the intensification of a non-identity that is irreducible to any hegemonic fantasy that labors on solidarity, equivalency, unity, program, demand, projection. And why not, also against the democratic polity (insofar as democracy cannot be thought outside the jointing of two apparatuses of civil society renewal: citizenship and mobilization). This archipolitics of Afropessimism puts into crisis the general categories of modern political thought, I am also tempting to limit this claim to the very notion of democratic practice as previously defined. Here the “legitimacy” that Wilderson evokes is no longer at the level of a new democratic renewal – which is always within the spirit of the modern liberal design; indeed, recently some have made legitimacy and hegemony conceptual couples – but rather as a poking outside the democratic imagination, which ultimately feeds Black social death, even when sustained by the social contract of hegemonic alliances.

Is there something beyond the subjection to alliance? In other words, what if being at the “end of the world” is also the time to undue the mystification of solidarity in the name of friendship? I agree with Jon Beasley-Murray, also writing about Frank Wilderson III, that the idea should not be to win over friends, but rather to suggest that friendship is still possible flight [2]. I would go as far as to call friendship an event of thought. Indeed, friendship has no stories to tell and does not seek redemption; it also betrays normative ethics each and every time. This is not to say that there such a thing as an archipolitics of friendship, nor a political program for a friendship of community. We have enough of that in every community form. Perhaps if we accept the event of singular friendship, we can move beyond the logistics of antagonism and hostility that are constitutive of Humanity, but irreducible to the specie that confronts the destiny of the inhuman. As a great thinker of the twentieth century wrote: “there are infinite possibilities of inhumanity in each man. There is no external enemy; this is why the tragic exists. This simple maxim confirms the fundamental thought of Robert Antelme. The “no-man” in man, attentive to perfection is what allows the sedimentation of the concentration camps. […] Friendship for me is not a positive thing nor a value, but rather a state, a multiplication of death, of interrogation, a neutral site where I can sense the unknown, the site where difference only expands in the place of its contrary – in proximity to death” [3]. One question that must accompany Wilderson’s formative book is whether the “spirit of friendship” with inhuman can be something like solace without redemption at the end of the world. Friendship could be understood here as the marker for the disunification of forms of life outside the condition of hostility without falling into nihilism. At the point, perhaps psychological categories such as optimism or pessimism now lose their relevancy as forms of life realize that they are already dwelling at the of the end of the world. 

Notes

  1. The conceptualization of Afropessisism as an archipolitics I owe to Alberto Moreiras. See his note “Whiteness and Humanity”, July 2020: “https://afropessimismandinfrapolitics.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/whiteness-and-humanity/
  2. 2. Jon Beasley-Murray. “Afropessimism”, July 2020: https://posthegemony.wordpress.com/2020/07/06/afropessimism/
  3. Dionys Mascolo. En torno a un esfuerzo de memoria: sobre una carta de Robert Antelme. Madrid: Arena Libros, 2005. 57. The translation to English is mine.