Why error? When you think about the these two words, Autonomous and University, they seem like two bad ideas.
Universal notions often end up making static rules. They want to destroy anything that challenges their authority – and to set up a world view or model, in pursuit of Truth – in effect denying the validity of all other theories and practices outside their own.
And while Autonomy does sound great, it’s unrealistic. Any interaction of objects needs a medium, an environment. So we’re always in debt to our environment. While Autonomy is usually thought of as the goal of creation, that is, to create something that has a life of its own (in Greek it means “having its own laws”), once autonomy occurs, this initial constituting event is difficult to keep from stultifying into hardened rules and norms.
So perhaps AU could combine two bad ideas into one tolerable one? Not at all sure we’ve done that. Looking back, before looking forward:
The Seattle Research Institute version of the Autonomous University idea envisioned inquiries that would begin as moderated discussion groups or reading groups focused on a particular issue (or problematic). The groups would aim for some form of public manifestation – which in effect would be a presentation of “results” (like tonight). The idea was to launch these groups and coordinate the presentations so that they could generate enthusiasm (& the PR energy) towards the formation of additional groups, and in this way the so-called university could become autonomous, ideally requiring minimal effort to subsist.
I agree with the idea that we shouldn’t allow school to interfere with education – in finding our own way. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead via Shaviro, what’s of interest is creation not rectification. Becoming – rather than some refinement of being.
Before Will Owen and I attempted to launch whatever it was that we launched (which hasn’t succeed in enacting this regenerative – engine of enthusiasm), I had come across an essay by Isabelle Stengers (on the ecology of practices) that had a big impact on my thinking, and Stengers ideas helped me think more clearly about what these grouplets could become. Stengers made me think the distinction between community (or the unity of the commons) and the collective – which doesn’t require unification. The collective goal is to cohere – it’s more focused on creating than rectifying. The community has a tendency to want to police itself, looking for rules, averages, norms.
That is, vis-à-vis Autonomous University, I realized that the goal isn’t really to empower individuals, but to empower the situation, to force participants to think and invent. That is, the external structure, the venue for discussions and deadlines and introductions was what could induce collective thought and action.
To quote from the prospectus for the Affective Aesthetics group: “The goal is collective thought, i.e., collective not as a unified consensus but as a dissensus, that is we will pursue a common ground (or common vocabulary) where disagreements can play out. It’s unclear where the research will take us.”
Per Stengers, “the idea is to foster collective thought (as I’ve said, quite distinct from unified thought) and to demonstrate how collective thinking can make a difference.” Submitting oneself to or participating in one of these groups is to a certain extent taking a risk, that is it can open you to becoming other than you are. “Encouraging the risk - the unique risk that each participant has to bring into the collective “meeting & mutation.”
To reiterate, I think the aim of collective meeting and mutation is coherence, and to quote Steve Shaviro (on Stengers on Whitehead): “Coherence isn’t logical, it’s eco-logical – always in relation to its environs.”
Stengers talks about “cohabitation between one [or within one] and between each other. A political ecology would be a social technology of belonging – which assumes coexistence and co-becoming as the habitat of practices.”
This notion of a “social technology of belonging” is difficult to understand (or it is difficult for me to understand). I think of belonging as a situation (like a specific family, or an art practice) where you own it as much as it owns you. You belong to it, and it belongs to you. In this context I think co-existence and co-becoming as the habitat begins to make sense. We’re in this together.
This said, “social technology” in the last couple of years has been on a roll with the so-called Arab Spring Forward (which hopefully does not precede a fall back), and what is happening in London (and Philadelphia & elsewhere). The police and its bureaucracies seem unable to control flash mobs except by adopting phone hacking techniques & preempting the meetings.
The individual in the crowd doesn’t really belong to the technology -- unless he or she works at Facebook or is an impossible geek. So while twitter & facebook don’t exactly induce belonging, they do facilitate meeting or bringing bodies together – they can be a tool for empowering a situation.
The flash mob is powerful precisely to the extent that it unites or subsumes individuals. The flash mob expresses itself in specific actions (for example, a broken Starbucks window, or the liberation of big screen tvs). I want to say that individual participants belong to the event & vice versa, not to the technology that got them to the site of the interaction.
The context for these riots (or flash mobs) is a neo-liberal capitalism where the notion of the market has permeated every part of our lives. We are continuously bombarded by advertisements – we begin to believe that we can have it all. Thus, there is a sense of entitlement at the same time that it feels as if the future has abandoned us.
According to Zizek, these are riots of ironic shopping, fulfilling (in the only available way) the consumer desires instilled in us. These are “zero degree protests” – that is, they are violent actions that demand nothing. Zizek wants to think of this kind of action (after his hero Hegel) as an abstract negativity. The rabble – or those outside organized social space – express discontent via irrational outbursts. Per Badiou (via Zizek), the world is increasingly worldless, "the only form protest can take is meaningless violence."
So while Facebook, with its own autonomy and universal reach, does not seem like a catalyst for deep thinking, it does seem like it can be a catalyst for collective feeling and action.
Stengers again: For real change to occur -- becoming other -- there needs to be an exposure, a risk. And one hopes for an event -- a meeting where mutation may occur.
I’m not sure but these spontaneous uprisings or flash mobs seem less individual expressions, than expressions of what society is becoming. It’s less about a singular or individual meeting & mutation, than about crowd activity.
Backing up a bit, there is a question of intent. What kind of decisions are being made in these viral uprisings. How do we explain the presence of mentality in the individuals and in the crowd?
I think mentality is decisional in the way that bacteria make decisions -- that is, way below the threshold of cognition or consciousness. There is a vast realm of feeling that we do not -- and cannot -- understand.
Kant and Whitehead are onto something when they assert that thinking and feeling require each other. And this was a big part of what I had hoped the affective aesthetic group would think through. We have to remember to acknowledge that feeling is the basis of experience. Aesthetics precedes ethics. “The skin is faster than the word.”
I’m not convinced that the flash mob or zero degree protest can be accurately characterized as a self-organized emergence. And I find the notion of self to be problematic. The presumption of individual consumer choice is central to the market dominated world we inhabit.
I could go on to argue for mentality as transhistorical. It is a reasonably good answer to the question of how to explain the presence of mentality in the world, ie, it was always there, it didn’t just emerge.
Reading some essays by Trevor Goward on Lichen recently, I’ve become intrigued by the notion of evolution as the history of indigestion. That is, what evolves is what resists complete consumption. And perhaps this demonstrates the inadequacy of dialectical explanations.
“What started as a gesture of parasitism later strengthened into mutual dependence, and later still to full symbiogenetic merger.” What fails to be consumed is not merely subsumed, but becomes mutually dependent with its host; and ultimately mutates with the host into something alien.
One problem I’m interested in is how to do something in the so-called humanities that meaningfully intersects science. They seem completely incompatible.
Science demands answers that can be detached from human interests – eliminating human artifacts from the experimental apparatus. But poetry and art demand answers that are attached to human interests. That is, artist-practitioners (even those against the so-called “hand”) attempt to create alluring artifacts.
This reminds me of something enigmatic from Robert Kelly. On his website, he talks about listening out loud to his own incomprehensibility -- as a definition of poetic process. “The incomprehensible is the only thing that makes sense. That is, it creates sense -- the sense of something happening to you as you read.” Kelly says provocatively: “Most poets are too smart to believe in their own intelligence.”
As seductive as this sounds (and it does seduce me), Stengers suggests that maybe it’s not going nearly far enough.
"It is much more comfortable to produce deep, beautiful meditations about an author not being an author of what he or she writes than reaching this point of nonstyle when you simply affirm that writing is not a spontaneous activity of human goodwill but puts the writer in debt to what makes him or her write." (Stengers, Last Enigmatic Message, 64)
But I did say “maybe”. Maybe Kelly’s enigma is not simply a meditation on “not being the author of what he writes”.
Anyway… I’m not sure what it means to live for (or with) what Whitehead calls the “vector character of experience” – where each moment looks both backward and forward. Where experience is not just an isolated point to be analyzed.
I’ll end by reading The Subject of the Subject – which is in debt to my collaborators (Galen, Cristin & Joel) who made me think & write. This appeared in Club Affect’s little pamphlet – an unhappy readymade (after Duchamp’s) that found itself printed on checkpaper – to prevent easy reproduction. It was hung out on a clothesline outside these windows -- between these trees.
One last point of introduction is that the phrase “subject of the subject” is something Michael Palmer muttered in a conversation at the Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver more than 20 years ago (wait – he doesn’t mutter – but to quote the Seinfeld episode where Kramer fixates on which modern horse to bet on – his mutter was a mudder). Today, these modernist rifts still have some life.