Come Together: Session 3
Chicago-based artist, writer, and organizer
Author of the novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton
New York-based artist and writer
Editor at Autonomedia and lecturer at the University of Essex, United Kingdom
In the last session, all the panelists seemed to consider the concept of the prefigurative. The prefigurative, or the practice of embodying the change that you want to see in the world at large, suggests that we don’t have to overthrow a system all at once in order to change our lives. As anarchist activist Cindy Milstein writes, “there should be an ethically consistent relationship between the means and ends . . . [one should align] one’s values to one’s practice and practice the new society before it is fully in place.”
The relatively large-scale social experiment of the Occupy movement involved decision-making through consensus, which activated and reclaimed public space while articulating a critique of the authority that had choked their life and prosperity. The past decade’s expressions of popular outrage in the United States have birthed a wide variety of calls for autonomy. These are exemplified by the increased popularity of localized food economies, the Tea Party’s emphasis on small government, and Occupy Wall Street’s protests against mass alienation from economic and political processes. Given the increased prominence of these ideas and movements, it’s necessary to not only trace their development, but also to navigate their sometimes-contradictory complexities.
Prominent Democratic congressional representative Tip O’Neill famously stated: “all politics is local.” This sentiment, in its generality, points to a pragmatic concern with scale, one that has recently joined with the experience of being transient and “multi-centered” (as Lucy Lippard dubbed it in her book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society) to such a degree that it has, in the words of sociologist Richard Sennett, “strengthened the value of place, aroused a longing for community.”
Local scale is also related to autonomy. This is why the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s was so concerned with maintaining land on which black people might live and work. In his “Black Manifesto,” community organizer James Forman called for “the establishment of a Southern land bank to help our brothers and sisters, who have to leave their land because of racist pressure, who want to establish cooperative farms.” While the reparations funds to support such an effort were never granted, movements such as the Republic of New Afrika and Federation of Southern Cooperatives have taken up such projects. The concept has also found a counterpoint in the cartographic projections of white supremacist leaders like David Duke, who would like nothing more than for African Americans and all other non-white racial and ethnic groupings to claim a territory and split into segregated bastions. Such projects reveal that the claims on local control are truly diverse.
The most prominent arguments for localism today come from sources that downplay their position on the ideological spectrum. On the economic side, there are claims around the multiplier effect or dollar cycle made by Buy Local campaigns and groups like American Independent Business Alliance and Civic Economics. These studies advocate that independent business people reinvest their money locally on a greater scale than non-local chain stores do. Additionally, the craze for locally sourced food pairs a similar economic argument with concerns over the non-renewable energy expended in food distribution. Movement figurehead Michael Pollan also emphasizes the health benefits, claiming “To shop at a farmers’ market or sign up with a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] is to join a short food chain and that has several implications for your health. Local produce is typically picked ripe and is fresher than supermarket produce, and for those reasons it should be tastier and more nutritious. As for supermarket organic produce, it too is likely to have come from far away—from the industrial organic farms of California or, increasingly, China.”
In a recent interview, labor organizer and lawyer Staughton Lynd offered a warning: “Countless small prefigurative experiments are launched within the belly of the capitalist beast. Most fail. Those that survive tend to be transformed into replicas of that which they initially opposed.” The boom in localism and prefigurative practices suggest that changing the world can happen one experiment at a time. But despite my sympathy for these impulses, I don’t know that this is really the case. By 1847, Freidrich Engels was already decrying the limits of these micro-utopian processes: “By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.”
In the face of this complexity, what might be the role of localist community experiments?
I’d like to spin off from what Daniel says when he writes, “The boom in localism and prefigurative practices suggest that changing the world can happen one experiment at a time. But despite my sympathy for these impulses, I don’t know that this is really the case.” I’m probably reading too much of a dichotomy into this phrase (we do have limited space to pose our questions, and Daniel is a subtle thinker), but I resist the implied opposition between localism and prefigurative practices and the grand human interdependence that, in the later quote, Engels asserts is the result of big industry. I don’t believe that local-level prefiguration and worldwide interdependence are mutually exclusive. Instead of looking at localism and globalism as engines for the zeitgeist, perhaps one can take the view that both are emanations of it. They are symptoms of the movement of the larger culture, rather than the underlying cause.
With this view in mind, it’s hard not to use the metaphor of human society as virus. Not in the sense that we are akin to a virus that is attacking and killing its host—pollution, fracking, brazen deforestation, human-induced desertification, great trash gyres in the oceans—though I believe this particular likening is a useful figure of speech because it hits you in the gut and inspires the kind of fear that moves people to change. I mean, here, that human society is like a virus in the way that a virus is made of discrete molecules that together create a larger movement. Microbiologist André Michel Lwoff drew this metaphor in his 1965 Nobel Lecture: “Social order is opposed to revolution, which is an abrupt change of order, and to anarchy, which is the absence of order . . . anarchy cannot survive and prosper except in an ordered society, and revolution becomes sooner or later the new order. Viruses have not failed to follow the general law. They are strict parasites which, born of disorder, have created a very remarkable new order to ensure their own perpetuation.” Virus molecules work individually and together to advance their aim. Human society does as well.
Thank you, Daniel, for raising such thoughtful questions, all of which—especially this latest one—have pointed toward important and sometimes painful realities connected to community experiments. The criticism that most of these projects are bound to fail is one of the most familiar, shadowing the homily “change begins at home.” However, I would like to question this pair of received ideas. First, if all these experiments are doomed, what exactly constitutes failure? Or success? If we examine things historically, we can dub many important political and social movements failures, including those whose ideas substantially altered our thinking and behavior. So we need to examine first the parameters that we’re using to determine a project’s value.
One of the problems is that in a cause-and-effect approach to the study of certain movements, we can determine all-too-quickly that, for instance, a given political event had “no meaningful impact.” The Occupy movement is a case in point. Did it eradicate banking corruption? No, but since the movement never stated its goals, can we say it failed overall? Conversely, did Occupy have an impact on the U.S. presidential election? And did it prepare the ground for the election of a progressive New York City mayor? There are no straightforward answers; the point is that we should avoid rushing to judgment. Maybe we need to move beyond the Manichean failure/success grading system altogether and focus on how to trace and study both short-term and long-term outcomes.
I’d like to focus my last set of comments on the currently fashionable idea of openness—the notion that projects, spaces, and politics should be as open as possible. While I can see the appeal here, it makes me wonder, “open” in what sense? Open to whom and for what purpose?
This leads me to a few questions and thoughts about the meaning and nature of openness in alternative art and politics. What is an open project or practice? What kinds of social relationships does it support, and what kinds does it work to prevent? How can it serve to further, say, the sociality in publishing argued for by André Breton? One interesting—if, admittedly, slightly strange—way to think through these kinds of questions might be to turn to philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s commentary on biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll’s research on ticks. As Uexküll describes the tick, it is completely open to the world, but this openness is constituted in a rather limited fashion: namely, the capacity to sense the movement of warm-blooded mammals from which it can derive nourishment. This version of the open is clearly very far from its definition as the unlimited capacity for becoming and transformation; it is simply the organism’s capacity to interact with its particular world. But it is not true to say the tick is not open the world; it is as open as can be.
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