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 . 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 . 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.
1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005).
Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott’s Heterografías de la violencia: historia nihilismo destrucción (La Cebra, 2016) is, at first sight, an assorted compilation of fifteen programmatic essays. Mostly written during the last decade or so, these texts attend to a wide range of theoretical specificities, such as the baroque and performative violence, imperial reason and contemporary literature, sovereign-exception law and flexible capitalist accumulation. It is to Villalobos’ merit that none of these issues are restituted to academic knowledge production or leveled out as a selection of “hot topics” within the neoliberal marketplace. As in his prior Soberanías en suspenso: imaginación y violencia en América Latina (La Cebra, 2013), what is at stake, far from erecting the edifice of a ‘critical theory’ aspiring to fix the limits of reflection – as postulated in “sovereignty” “nihilism” or “destruction” – is the composition of a constellation that circumnavigates the vortex of the general horizon of the philosophy of history and the university machine.
In some way, Heterografías is auxiliary to Soberanías en suspenso, but not in the parasitical sense of amending or filling previous generalities. This new collection pushes thought beyond the specificity of the insular ‘Chilean scene’, providing for the indeterminacy of the logic of sovereignty as the arcanum of both interruption and continuity of the philosophy of the history of capital in Latin America. This is not to say that in Soberanías en suspenso the ‘local Chilean scene’ operated self-referentially as the archive for the reassertion of a cultural investigation. In the prior book, the Chilean scene is understood as a paradigm, in the sense of a singular relation to the singular, which Heterografías converts into a topical ensemble that interrogates the displacements, variations, and narratives of principial Latinamericanist reason from both nomic and anomic spatial formations.
Heterografías resists positing a new metaphorization of history, as well as yet another ‘political theory’ for what Latinamericanists identify as the object of “Latin America”. Although Villalobos does not thematize it as such, his book is full-fleshed post-Latinamericanist, and the reason is not just because it moves and weaves through the Schmitt-Kojeve debate on geopolitics and colonialism to the politics of the baroque and Catholic imperial katechon; from Latin American literature (Borges, Lamborghini, Perlongher) to debates on memory and indexing (Richard, Didi-Huberman, Segato). It is post-latinamericanist because it challenges the university praxis that administers, organizes, and provides for a linguistic transculturation to a post-katechontic ground that is today insufficient except as onto-theology and reproduction of cliché.
On the other hand, one also appreciates Villalobos’ minimal gesture of displacement of Latinamericanism not as a mere abandonment of the Latinamericanist object – which amounts to another exception, another distance with the object of desire, or its mere dis-placement – but as an otherwise relation that is not regulated by what Moreiras has called the ‘pleasure principle’ at the heart of hegemonic investment of the Latinamericanist intellectual . A post-Latinamericanism, thus is necessarily posthegemonic to the extent that:
“…no se trata de elaborar una ‘mejor crítica’ de lo real ni de desenmascarar el carácter ideológico de un programa en competencia, sino de debilitar la misma lógica “fundamental” que estructura el discurso moderno universitario…. desistir del nihilismo en nombre de un pensamiento que no puede ser reducido a un principio hegemónico de producción de verdad y de saber. La post-hegemonía de la que estamos hablando, no es solo una teoría regional destinada a evidenciar los presupuestos de la teoría política contemporánea, sino también la posibilidad de establecer una relación no hegemónica entre pensamiento y realidad. Ubicarnos en esa posibilidad es abandonar el discurso de la crítica de la denuncia y particular de una práctica de pensamiento advertida de las fisuras y trizaduras que arruinan a la hegemonía como principio articulador del sentido y del mundo” (Villalobos 36).
What is offered to radical “destruction” is the principle of sovereignty that, as Villalobos painstakingly labors to display, is always already an-archic and in–determined. If according to Reiner Schürmann, the principle (archē) is what structures and accounts for the ground of presencing in any given epochality; Villalobos bears witness to the an-archic instance of every form of apparatus (literature, geopolitics, the national-popular, ethnicity, war, neoliberalism, etc.) that seeks to ground itself through principial formation, as both origin and commandment. In this way, the ‘history of metaphysics’ is not taken here as a teleo-phenomenological compression reducible to the very hyperbolic presencing of mere principles, but as a folding process that transforms the critique of metaphysics to that of its apparatuses. This has radically consequences, since it is no longer a debate about the university regime of knowledge production, or about the co-belonging between the destruction of metaphysics and the metaphysics of destruction, but rather: “…como concebir el carácter moderna y prosaico de las prácticas históricas, ya no investidas con un secreto transcendental, sino que constituidas como aperiódica radical de de-sujeción” (Villalobos 136).
The gesture does not wish to open a second order of exteriority to thought (whether geopolitically or subject-oriented), but a practice of the “non-subject” within the interregnum that lends itself to the radical historicity beyond the historicism of its apparatuses. The interregnum highlights the radical dislocation between philosophy and history, disinhibiting the categorial determinations that attest to its in-determinacy (Villalobos 145). By putting emphasis on the indeterminate character of violence, Villalobos is also indicating the flexibility and modality of effective law in every specific historical instance . Thus, to amend the anomic status of the interregnum is always already to fall a step forward into nihilism and its epochal structuration of the given conditions. This is the instinct of all hegemonic principial incorporation as a pastoral or geopolitical formation. Heterografías consistently points to the folds that open to a potential constellation of singulars as an otherwise of experience de-contained from the duopoly philosophy-history and the cunning of capital (Kraniauskas).
As such, Heterografías advances the destruction of three transversal lines that feed the apparatuses of the philosophy of the history of capital in the interregnum: sovereignty, war, and accumulation. It is not the case that these lines have their own autonomy, historical foundation, or even ‘substance’. Rather, these folds that act as an assemble that partition and make up what I am willing to call the Latinamericanist exception in its metamorphosized transformations that aggregate knowledge, practices, and discourses. To dwell otherwise on the interregnum entails precisely to ‘free the lines’, as Deleuze & Guattari’s proposed in A Thousand Plateaus, crisscrossing the modalities of war (in times of peace or what Villalobos calls pax Americana); sovereignty (as still rendered in the katechontic determination of the State and fictive ethnicity); and accumulation (as an always ‘ongoing appropriation and expropriation’ from modernization processes to neoliberalist dispossession).
The scene of the interregnum as traversed by the flexible pattern of accumulation (Williams 2002) is a baroque scene. Not so much ‘baroque’ in the literary or even pragmatic sense that seeks to provide agency to subaltern informal workers in the Latin-American peripheries, but as a modal process that counteract the dynamic of sovereignty while re-inseminating a heterogeneous (heterographic) processes of violence at the heart of the common political experience . The baroque also dramatizes the fissure of finitude that could put a halt to the sovereign exception. To this end, the critical gesture during times of interregnum is to abandon first principle of action, whether as purely conservationist katechon, or as immanentization of the eschatology. Villalobos calls for a third option, which is infrapolitical relation with the worldliness and the mundane freed from exclusion-inclusion logic. In an important moment in his essay on Kojeve and the geopolitical philosophy of history, Villalobos writes:
“Faltaría pensar la no-relación entre el ni-amigo-ni-enemigo, lo neutro blanchotiano, que se des-inscribe del horizonte sacrificial de la tradición política occidental, esto es, de una cierta tradición política asociada con el principio de razón, con la comunidad y la amistad, como decía Derrida, o del sujeto, como dice Alberto Moreiras, apuntando a una dimisión no afiliativa ni fraternal, no principial ni fundacional, sino infrapolítica” (Villalobos 92).
Infrapolitical relation is given as a promise that retains freedom of life during the time of the interregnum against all apparatuses of capture and conversion (it is no by accident that the marrano figure appears a few times through the book in decisive ways). How can one participate in conflict without necessarily open to war? How could one instantiate exchange without reproducing the principle of equivalence? How could there be a relation between literature and politics beyond representation and the productionist aesthetic institution and the literary canon? The potential to render thought otherwise, profanes every articulation of the apparatus allowing for a political exigency in the interregnum: an infra-political relation with the political, which brings back democracy to its post-hegemonic site. It is in this sense that Heterografías it is not a book disconnected from the “political practices” or what the althusserians call the material “conjuncture”. On the contrary, the task is achieved through a reflexive gesture that attends to every singular determination of the ‘ongoing accumulation’ that exceed the libidinal and memorialist investments in Marxian locational archives .
The purpose is to avoid a calculable relation with the conjuncture as always already shorthanded for hegemony, will to power, ‘movement of movements’, subjection, etc.; as to de-capture the radical historicity no longer ingrained in History’s metaphoricity. This is why Borges, the a-metaphorical thinker, disseminates Heterografías at various key moments juxtaposing politics and imagination and undoing the master-theory for political movements that always speak in the name of ’emancipation’. (The fall of Brodie in Borges’ short-story is the absolute comic negation of the Pauline’s militant conversion at Antioch).
As already specified in Soberanías, the threshold of imagination becomes the task for intra-epochal (interregnum) experience. Imagination, of course, does not point to an anthropological faculty of humanity, the prevalence of a sensible component over reason as in Kant, or a new intellect that as post-universitarian is able to secure a new site for prestige. Imagination is a preparatory relay for a turbulent de-formation of the apparatuses in to a common universality of singulars. Villalobos does not deliver a general theory of imagination, since imagination is already what we do as a form of dwelling, in the course of every form of life. I would like to un-translate Heterografías in these terms not because imagination remains the unsaid in every practice of destitution as what always escapes identity, equivalency, or the friend-enemy relation. But then, is imagination the outside of nihilism?
Imagination accounts for the heterographic processes that are flattened out by the master concepts that capture and dispense principial thought. In this sense, imagination is not reducible to the institution of literature or culture, but inscribes a singular relation with language; the possibility of speaking in the name of that which lacks its proper name . The fact that today everyone speaks in the name of something it is the most visible asymptotic of the fall into technical nihilism. On the contrary, imagination is always the potentiality to speak for a minor people that interfere with the grammar of grand politics. In the last chapter “Crítica de la accumulation”, the site of imagination is the necessary metaxy for an otherwise politics of contemporary Latin America:
“En última instancia, se trata de pensar los límites históricos de la imaginación política latinoamericana, misma que necesita trascender la nostálgica identificación con una política reivindicativa y radicalizar su vocación popular en una suerte de populismo salvaje, que no se orienta heliotrópicamente a la conquista del poder del Estado, para una vez allí, disciplinar a las masas. Un populismo sin Pueblo, pero con muchos pueblos, heterogéneos y contradictorios, con una énfasis insobornable en los antagonismos y no en las alianzas, en las figuraciones catacréticas y disyuntivas…En suma, un populismo post-hegemonico…” (Villalobos 228).
The political mediation insofar as it is post-hegemonic ceases to dominate in the principial totality where life and the social, as based on fictive identity, coincide or collapse unto each other. This post-hegemonic populism cannot be said to be one at odds with institutions, or merely just cultural or charismatic supplement. Villalobos seems to be opening here the question of a distinctive form of law that would require imagination, not heterographic violence; attentiveness to singularity, and not another politics of the subject. How could one think a law that exceeds the citizen and the exception? Is it not isonomy – as the principle of the integral movement towards citizenship – what hinders and captures political life over its heterographic excess? Could one imagine a law that is consistent with democracy as the self-rule of a minor people, of a people without history, a savage people, inhabiting the true state of exception?
The answers to these questions are not to be found in Heterografías de la violencia. Villalobos-Ruminott has made a striking effort to sketch a set of common objectives, tasks, nuances, exigencies, and considerations for the possibility of critical thought (in the deleuzian sense) against the grain of interregnum’s anomie. The task is immense, even when its transparent language is deceiving: to open a fissure of worldliness (mundanidad) in preparation for a savage democracy to come; enabling the conditions for a way of thinking that is not oblivious to the production of violence within the ongoing accumulation that unfolds and whitewashes the present.
Alberto Moreiras. “Poshegemonía, o más allá del principio del placer“. Poshegemonía: el final de un paradigma de la filosofía política en América Latina. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 2015.
It is in the quasi-concept ‘effective operation of law’, where Villalobos comes nearest to Yan Thomas’ studies on the juridical flexibility of law. See his Les opérations du droit (EHESS, 2011).
I am thinking here of Veronica Gago’s recent book La razón neoliberal: economías barrocas y pragmatica popular (Tinta Limón, 2015) which seeks to render a micropolitical form of neoliberalism from below deploying the concept of ‘baroque’ to ‘express’ its emancipatory and empowering dynamic in the informal sector. For Villalobos, on the contrary, informal economy is not an exception to the visible form of accumulation, but its flexible difference in the age of an-archic capital. The baroque is not a given instance for “emancipation” or “subjective agency”, but where sovereignty becomes dramatized in its most extreme degree: “Es decir, necesitamos pensar el barroco como una problematización de la filosofia de la historia del capital, con una interrupción que trastoca la especialización del atemporalidad propia de la metafísica moderna y más específicamente, de su correlato, política, la versión liberal-contractualista del orden y del progreso social” (78).
“Diría que hay, al menos, dos formas de confrontar este problema; por un lado, la posibilidad de repensar el marxismo, Marx y sus diversas apropiaciones, según su historia, sus filologías y tradiciones, para determinar la “verdadera” imagen de Marx, hacerle justicia a su corpus, exonerarlo de los excesos de la tradición y traerlo al presente según una nueva actualidad. Por otro lado, sin renunciar a un horizonte materialista y aleatorio, la posibilidad de elaborar una crítica de la acumulación….” (215).
Giorgio Agamben. “In nome di che?” Il fuoco e il racconto. Rome: nottetempo, 2014.
My review of Charles Hatfield’s recent Limits of identity: politics and poetics in Latin America (U Texas Press, 2015) was published today at Berfrois. It is an admirable book, which I hope will promote important discussions both within and beyond the professional field.
“In spite of its simplicity and methodical pragmatism, Charles Hatfield’s The Limits of Identity: Politics and Poetics in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2015) is an ambitious and systematic effort to dismantle some of the predominant variations of identarianism that feed the discursive apparatus of Latinamericanism in a period that spans over a century, from José Martí’s “Nuestra América” (1891) to John Beverley’s Latinamericanism after 9/11 (Pittsburgh Press, 2011) . The organization of this book, however, is not chronological nor is it structured around case studies based on regions or authors”…[to continue reading].