Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform

This question of organization in the age of the internet seems to be one of the most crucial in any political project. How do we relate to each other on the internet, blogosphere, email, comment sections and all? How does this new form of largely isolated interaction effect more vulnerable embodied assemblages (groups/collectives)? Coming together in a common place as proximal bodies for a common purpose can never be replaced and I feel it must be emphasized – even in a blog post. What blogging does for me and others (to get all meta on you) is exchange ideas, or, if not an equalized interaction, absorb and affect each other’s expressions. I’ve learned quite a bit from the blogosphere – it is a neat surrogate for academia – but the emplacement of the student at the screen as the site of learning and sharing has its drawbacks. The internet has a great many strange places within, but the one in which the embodied user tends to inhabit is the glowing screen.

The debt activism that Asta Taylor is involved in is one case that I can relate to: I’ve done some organizing with Strike Debt Bay Area. It is extremely difficult to reach out to people *as debtors* and organize individuals into a collective *as debtors*. The isolation and shame attached to the position of debtor vis-a-vis creditors makes it less than desirable to claim as a subjectivity to come out as and own (although ‘gay’, ‘queer’, and I’m sure many others have odd histories of their own worth noting), yet the vast majority of people here in America (and many other places) are debtors burdened by the extractive economy. Is it alone, in our rooms, cafés, and other places of comfort that we will break off from adherence to a morality that sucks our energies up and keeps us from straying off of the main road? For some people yes. But for a mass movement of active bodies, most people need to meet up with others in greater gatherings. Debtors Assemblies have played that role, but in order to get people to come, to build that force, you’ve got to advertise. If you want to get people to come to your events I’ll give you some advice I gave to some students at the last Strike Debt Bay Area meeting: images everywhere. Posters, flyers, stickers, bulletin boards, walls, heavily trafficked areas… If you have a good idea, you need to get in people’s faces.

Too often do I turn off my tablet after a few hours and then think: “Okay, what did I just do on that one screen?”

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“The Internet is said to be a space of democratic expression and transformation, both culturally and politically. But how true is that claim? What are some of the economic, technical, and legal obstacles in place? Drawing from her recent book, “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age,” and her experience as an artist and an activist, Astra Taylor — filmmaker, writer, and political organizer — addresses campaigns by musicians against streaming services and debtors against creditors to reflect on the larger question of how to organize and leverage change in an age of virtual networks — be they networks of cultural distribution or financial ones.”

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Worldly Angst: Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought

There is no more pressing concern that can be addressed right now than global warming. Think about it. Our planet has the very rare quality of having just the right temperature for H2O to abound in three different states of matter. We earthlings are a privileged bunch. Thinking beyond earth and into stars, galaxies, and other planets inspires wonder (or wonder inspires thinking towards the sky), but, also, right here on this planet matter/energy has found a way to loop and grow and evolve into what we call life. Writing and speaking this way can stop us in our tracks and make us stare out in astonishment, but it also can provide cover against seeing what is right in front of us and forget where we are. Where we are historically is in the funky position of being unable to think past certain concepts stringing us along a ruinous path; ruinous for us and our environment. But I contend that part of solution is blurring the lines between ‘us’ and ‘environment’. Thinking about ecology instead of Nature is to think a forward moving coexistence instead of a detachment.

Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) presents a way to rethink our notions of ’nature’, ’life’, and even ’world’ in a way that allows us to respond to the breakdowns in complex systems honestly and think through them both realistically and fantastically. His ’Eco Thought’ is timely in that it wrests Nature from its status as a “place over yonder” one can ignore by
resuming Cultural pursuits or visit on a hike in the woods and injects it directly into us. It is timeless in that it does the critical-textual work of marking out the beginning of a new era.

We never achieved a break from Nature as human beings in civilization but conceptually and in language. Blending and bewildering conceptual oppositions like Nature-Culture flows seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph for Morton, spreading virally throughout the book. Indeed, his concept of the ’mesh’ blurs even matter and life in a non-vitalism making room for the terrifying inside us and outside of us. What we call life is just matter/energy flowing in an interconnected mesh, “[t]his flow has been ongoing since DNA started its random mutations. Evolution is mutagenic. It isn’t linear or progressive.” (p.43) Eliminating our secure position as humans or even life-forms and unsettling our false pretenses to independence from “the rest” puts our ideas into extreme doubt. This isn’t to convince you that you are not alive but that you, I, and we are not the culmination of anything in time but instead a presently contained mutation with no end.

This can feel like one big negation of reality, and Morton even writes: “Negativity might even be more ecological than positivity is. A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think.” (p.16) Yet this profoundly weird nothing that follows us along subverting all attempts at transcendence and identification is not to “put us in our place” in bare existence. It is to reject the distance implied in delineating place to show that everything is interconnected but not in a completed whole. The holes found everywhere in the w-hole prevent a world from asserting itself. No safe haven is given by taking sides in the traditional divisions used to clarify problems of the being of the world like Mind and Matter. The strangeness of connectivity without coherence undermines all efforts to make sense of the world by carving it up into well-ordered sections. Negation has gone viral; the hole is quickly found in both areas.

“The ecological crisis makes us aware of how interdependent everything is. This has resulted in a creepy sensation that there is literally no world anymore. We have gained Google Earth but lost the world. “World” here means a location, a background, against which our actions become significant.” (p.31)

Its as if globalization and our dominance of the planet has left no where to go – no setting or stage from which one can say “this is where I am”. Sweeping the basis for meaning away can be a dreadful thought, and Morton’s only consolation “to the tear in the real [is]… [i]f it has always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?” (p.31) His concept of the mesh accommodates differences in time and location; it is only in this historical moment when the planet is under domination by such a concentrated system that we feel the anxiety of losing our home.

Thinking past this loss of world and coming up with new concepts for this purpose means leaving behind the world as a container and even the universe of physicists. The act of creating concepts is a philosophical exercise in the vein of Delueze and Guattari and the ecological thought is precisely a conceptual way of imagining a mode of being within language that gets through a physical-ecological problem. This involves mystical and spiritual revival but in a way that does not imagine other more perfect worlds, ordering them with respect to our mortal inferiority. Heck, it doesn’t even encourage the reader to focus on the real world exactly:

“…what we think of as “imagination” is just an after-image, an extrapolation we make when we notice people using language… do we have a sense of *world* in our heads, a background against which we can operate?” (p.88)

The Wittgensteinian move is to recognizing the limitations of language and get us to think the world beyond it without bringing along the messy metaphysics carried over from language, but Morton contends that even the world is stuck within those linguistic limits. The difference of conceptual relations spills into reality whether we discourse or not: cleaning up our language and speaking of the world outside of it will do us no good. We’d do better to think in terms of ecology, instead of forms of *life*.

Ecology evokes environment, life, and science so that we are encouraged to internalize the methods of scientific inquiry yet also avoid miring ourselves too much in its technical terminology. The mesh permits their inter-connectivity without ordering them centrally or referring a word to its ’thing out there’ identically. If we are going to properly deal with the climate we need sound, trustworthy science to compliment a radical shift in (for lack of a better word) consciousness through concepts. This is the difficult work of thinking the tangled concepts in a style that paves the way for an ecological existence. This existence is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety but this need not and cannot result in the desperate groping for a harmony that we mistakenly perceive to have lost.

The rapid firing of conceptual distinctions and mind-numbing dodging and weaving in Morton’s book does well in mirroring the swirling confusion of the crisis gripping our planet. It also makes the arguments hard to follow. He makes the paradoxical character of these ideas explicit: “[a]lthough there is no absolute, definite “inside” or “outside” of beings, we cannot get along without these concepts either. The mesh is highly paradoxical.” (p.39) Another big concept of his is ’the strange stranger’ in which “there is no way to maintain the strangeness of things.” (p.41) But Morton scores a clear hit by concentrating on Capitalism and its co-optive logic. The distortion that Capitalism employs in the commodifying of everything from sexual bodies to food production proliferates without individual assent and even encourages rage against itself – as long as dissent can be useful in making a sale. The disorienting groundlessness of ecological philosophy is one particularly poignant method of isolating the ideology putting us all at risk in Capitalism. It gives us a more sharpened mind for evading the snares of Capitalist logic, which thrives on individualizing terror. That terror exists beyond any of us humans and beyond the world, yet Capitalism thrives by enclosing it within individual minds. An ecological mind doesn’t reactively leap into a communal-nationalist passion in its rejection of individuals though. This remains attached to the concept by simplifying the negation. The ecological thought utilizes the form of radical collectives rather than communities of abstraction.

“So along with the political radicalisms that seek to create new forms of collectivities out of the crisis of climate disruption, there must also be a rigorous and remorseless theoretical radicalism that opens our minds to where we are, about the fact that we’re here.” (p.104)

At the same time, the void of intense personal practices found in the likes of meditation are never fully divorced in the mushy interconnection of the mesh. They even allow us to organize ourselves otherwise than the stable routines demanded on us by Capitalism. Individuals joined together in collectives exert a form of relating to each other that is neither Individualist nor Holistic.

Morton’s ecological thought (but is it his anymore?) is an honest work of the thought needed to act responsibly towards not just people but things. Things like chemicals, trees, mountains, etc. are given better treatment by ecological thinking than by a domineering Nature one must repeatedly affirm they are a “part of”. Not even the world is a whole to be a part of. This paves the way for a more stylistic existence that attends to the field of interaction in and out of language. This radical concept is an intriguing development in urgent times.

Larval Ethics

To Begin With:
“Is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?”
-Levi Bryant
A Series of Further Questions of Mine:
The logic of identification – grouping individuals inside a boundary: if a community is named, does the naming inevitably produce another? Is the identification of the many under one name a antagonistic move? Or can the delicately crafted negotiation of inclusion/exclusion prevent such measures of paranoia and aggression?
If the blame for violence comes from the other group, would sympathies sway to the side of the non-aggressor? Or must both communities share the blame for structuring the relationship in such a way as to bring about this confrontation? Is there even such a thing as an ’aggressor community’ and a ’victim community’?
Regarding the Occupy Movement:
Can there be a name to identify with, whose transcendence never goes beyond the actions and immanent spatial “being there”, so that the attachment to the identity doesn’t generate violence?
Should violence be avoided or should the conflict be deemed “inevitable” and take the strategy towards clearly presenting the other as the violent aggressor?
How can strangers with diverse views get along together without dissolving in the face of external attack and misrepresentation without a title?
And Now:
Levi Bryant has been kicking ass in his blog Larval Subjects lately. Thinking ethics with realism and materialism in mind has the difficult task of avoiding the reification of particular social norms and describing ethical relationships physically. The overriding concern as I take it is to preserve an ethics towards others that includes strangers and the environment as opposed to just familiar faces and abstract symbols of attachment. Such a code that allows for an ethical commitment through symbolic allegiance often maintains one’s comfortable place and closes off the surprise of the coming of the other. This encounter with the stranger occurs at boundaries that separate them from me or my local territory from another’s – thinking spatially that is. So the ethical decision becomes one of letting the other cross into my comfort zone or abandoning my comfort zone for the strangeness of another’s. The ethical decision always made in the indefinite present must be undecided at the arrival of the strange thing that intrudes upon the casual movement of my routine affairs.
Bryant writes:
“A distinction implies boundary between inside and outside. The problem is that a boundary belongs to neither the inside nor the outside. Boundaries belong to both insides and outsides. This entails that boundaries are undecidable for any system. The real world consequence of this is that every system that attempts to form an identity (a self, a transcendence, an essence, etc) encounters an undecidable boundary between inside and outside that renders identity fraught from within.”
There is a lot of Derrida whisperings here that I am willing to acknowledge and appreciate. The question of ethical relationships becomes obscured when the task goes beyond deconstruction and on to a *mobilization* of something Deleuze & Guatarri might call a war machine (which may or may not have violent warfare as its object). Movement building that seeks a construction as its object: can this be done ethically by sticking merely to a proximal closeness of physical encounters and/or an abstract symbol with which one can identify? Would a movement be forced into a violent hegemony with a transcendent rationality of ’us vs. them’ by identifying with a name and claiming a territory for itself? Does the anxiety created by forming a solid identity doom them all to an aggressive hostility to the other?
I’m bombarding you (reader) with questions because I don’t really have an answer. But I think these are the right questions and I’ll go on speculating about them.
Ultimately I think, continuing in a Derridean manner, that these questions are unanswerable at the textual level, they must be worked out in the moment – the moment that forever eludes the writer and reader. It is in these tenuous moments that the flickering of attitudes, allegiances, and beliefs must play out. The outcomes that a carefully planned theory can never actualize completely but tries to prepare us for and teach us to think about is the scene of ethics. Coming up against the borders of who we are, who is included, what is the goal, how can ‘x’ be accommodated, etc. are matters of tactics and strategy when the growth and survival of a thing is at stake among hostiles. We all unquestionably bring our theoretical commitments along with us into the strategic/tactical discussion. But the decisions to go this way or the other, the collective movement forging along all the while, is not the direct result of the positions delineated in these discussions and often go completely off the expected course. The chaotic uncertainty of the occurrence frequently makes the best laid plans fail. Bringing up strategy and tactics highlights the difficulties of making ethical decisions when placed in the context of a survival game, complete with hostile strangers (enemies) and tentative alliances.
What alters ethical dilemmas into matters of strategy and tactics or what obscures the welcoming of the stranger is often a community with a shared understanding that differs drastically from another’s. One’s finger can be firmly pointed at the symbols conforming people into blind faith when they get in the way of mutual agreements. At this point whether or not subscribing to the name is a net benefit at all. The commitment to an abstraction can make matters worse, as Nationalism and Fascism have terrifyingly demonstrated. To organize and link people up into a single force carries risks. But if we are to forgo this option, preexisting forces without remorse will walk all over us and continue to reinforce a path towards oblivion. Perhaps there is a way to ethically forge a collective from disparate places and work on a better world without dogmatic labeling. I honestly don’t know. Would collectives be enough to halt a seemingly uninterruptible system backed by guns, jets, drones, and spyware?
Whatever the case, I think we should let tactics blend into our ethics.