Common Conflict

To Realize the Commons

Rick Dolphijn

March 4, 2016essay,

In this contribution to the Common Conflict virtual roundtable, Rick Dolphijn emphasizes that the commons is not a humanist concept but much more a materialist concept. He argues that the commons depends upon the creation of new assemblages: it is the accidental process of realizing a mental, a social and an environmental whole that marks the commons. 

Obviously the idea of the commons is old, yet I fear that its contemporary use is still much dependent upon what we could call a ’68 legacy. With that I am not only referring to the impact of the student uproar in Paris, the race riots in the United States, or the strikes and revolts that took place in many more locations around the globe where the political landscape was in a process of change. More, I am referring to how this resulted in the countless emancipatory movements that in their togetherness not only questioned the way in which race, class and gender oppositions structured the post-war world, but also to how all these micropolitical actions turned ’68 into ‘an event’ that not so much ‘took place,’ but that has been dominating critical thinking ever since. Personally I am highly indebted to the ideas this amazing global event still has to offer us. Yet I think that when it comes to thinking the commons today, we should start by identifying the ideas delivered to us by ’68 that do not match the contemporary simply because the world has changed a lot over the past fifty years. Or to put it even more strongly, let us start by isolating those ’68 ideas / ideals that prevent us from thinking (and realizing) the commons in the twenty-first century: 

1. There Is No ‘Generation’ in Charge of the Commons

In contrast to popular post-’68 idealism, thinking and realizing the commons does not depend upon ‘a generation’ (as in, a new generation has to step up and fight the power). The idea that our social bonds do not so much depend on kinship relations or on socio-economic classes, but rather on the generation with which one shares a childhood, is very much a baby boomer reality. In fact, I think that it was only with this post-war generation that came to adulthood in the late 1960s, that a kind of generational communality could have been realized. The unique cocktail of post-war frustration (dealing with the ongoing strategies of fascism and communism), (post)colonial politics, the invention of pop music, the remarkable growth of the economy, the demographic power shift, I think led to the rise of the only ‘generation’ in the course of history. The idea that this generation was preceded by particular generations and that new generations followed (which were given silly names such as ‘generation X’) is a myth. Thinking the commons in 2016 should therefore not be relying on any idea of a generation, or on any kind of communality that implicitly depends upon intra-generational bonds. Times have changed.  

2. The ‘Commons’ Is Not a Humanist Concept

In line with its implicit ‘generational’ ideal, the commons, and even more the communist ideals it is to entail, consider the social relations that give form to it, as necessarily human relations. As if communism concerns ‘the sovereignty of the people.’ I take this as a strange pseudo-Marxism that again became widely popular after ’68 but that is most of all supported by nineteenth-century humanist ideals (post-Cartesian, post-Kantian) that have (still) survived the critique of this humanism up to today. Any historian and any amateur cartographer (reading a pre-nineteenth-century city map) will tell you that the commons is much more a materialist concept that always traverses the mental, the social and the environmental. Communality has always been first and foremost a space in which humans, non-humans, and in the end all possible organic and non-organic forms of life, peacefully coexist. The sympathy, the empathy or the affect through which any kind of communality is being realized, then, has never ‘taken place’ between people exclusively, but involves every possible body, every possible entity that is somehow caught up in this event. The commons, the markets, the free havens, the margins of society where free thinking could take place, have been crucial to human settlement forever. But also beyond the realm of humanity the great in-between [the infinite (non-Euclidian) space that threads measured space] produces the fresh air that is the only means of survival for space-under-control. Ergo, since the commons is in no way limited to human relations, there is no reason to believe that the realization of the commons is in any way dependent upon ‘humans’ as a species.  

3. To Realize the Commons One Should Not Open Up to the Other

In social theory, the need to embrace ‘the Other’ has been important to the thinking of the left since ’68. This ‘reaching out for’ otherness played a crucial role in the emancipatory processes that defined critical thinking since then (the theories concerning race, class and gender for instance) but it is also essential to ‘new’ fields like animal studies and post-human studies (where thinking of nature is often pursued in terms of ‘otherness’). The problem, however, is the humanism, or better, the anthropocentrism at the core of our thinking, which produces an otherness only and necessarily as a projection of the self from which it starts. Otherness is the possible world that we can think of, but one wonders how much this image that we ourselves produce (of blackness, the proletariat, the woman) is anything but an idea of the white middle-class male from which this idea arises. In other words, isn’t otherness in the end a very passive and even reactionary humanist ideal that ‘fakes reality’ and even resists the present from happening? Instead of opening oneself up to the Other (as a violent gesture), wouldn’t it make much more sense to let oneself be opened by an-otherness (the wholly unexpected, the unforeseen, the necessarily inhuman alternative)? This kind of vulnerability, this restraint from any judgement, this unwillingness to take position, is then precisely the kind of immanent responsibility necessary for any kind of communality to come into existence. 

So what is the kind of communality we are left with? How can we become aware of this non-generational, post-human and responsible communality in our day and age?

Crucial here is that the commons has to be created. Like any kind of cooperation, any parallel existence, any coexistence, the commons depends upon the creation of new assemblages. As I noted before, this starts from realizing a kind of vulnerability, not so much a movement toward the Other but an allowing of ‘an-otherness’ to happen. Only this way can new alliances come into being. 

Let us listen therefore to Francis Bacon, the painter, who has often talked about this process of opening up to unforeseen powers, when being asked how creative processes lead to great art. This has nothing to do with ‘having an idea’ that needs to be realized (by an artist, living in a particular era) on the canvas. For Bacon, the creation of an artwork was by all means a post-human enterprise. Of course, being the artist, he had a responsibility in setting up the right conditions, in giving life to his artist studio, in managing the circumstances under which ‘the creative act’ could take place. And of course he had to start painting the canvas, setting up the lines and colours that were necessary for the figure to emerge. But then… what had to happen then? The accident had to happen, Bacon claims time and again in his interviews. The diagonal line that came from nowhere and that affected everything, had to traverse the scene and ‘make’ the event. It had to un-organize the hand of the painter, the brush, the paint, the canvas, etc., in order to realize the impossible, that which could never have happened. The accident was not ‘caused’ by the painter, not by the paint or the studio, not by the History of Painting as it was always already involved in the scene. The accident that was allowed to happen, by all of these actors, took over. 

How then to anticipate the taking place of the ‘accident,’ as Bacon calls it? How to anticipate the creative act, that event where new alliances install a new type of communality? Again, the artist shows us what to do, as it is the artist that (like all other non-human actors involved in creating the artwork) engages in an affirmative practice. The artist knows that the creation of a figure can only be done out of love. It can only happen if s / he is completely occupied with the creative act, with the unknown artwork that calls upon us from an impossible future. This occupation does not concern ‘that which is about to be depicted,’ albeit a body, a situation, an idea and so on. Only through an immense and unknown love, free-floating forms of exchange between the hand of the artist, the surface of the painting, the softness of the brush, the generosity of the paint, form new ecologies. It is an event as the artist (together with the paint, the brush, etc.) is taken up in the creative act. The good artist never stands opposed to the canvas (as the good canvas never stands opposed to the artist). There has to be an ‘instant,’ as Parmenides hypothesizes, when all involved act as one, and all involved, as one, invent new limbs, new languages, new forms, new ideas. All differences are taken up, momentarily, into a new and very powerful type of sameness. 

What is being produced then we may call the artwork. But it is that which remains, which persists in being and which could only have happened in the process, which must be considered the commons. And this artwork does not have to be a painting (as with Bacon), a poem, a building, or whatever we today define as art. New creative, persistent and sustainable post-human ecologies can come into being from all sorts of creative acts; new communities can come into being in all sorts of material circumstances. It is the accidental process of realizing a mental, a social and an environmental whole that marks the commons. 

Rick Dolphijn is a writer and philosopher teaching in the Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University. He is interested in continental philosophy, art, technology and contemporary activism. He published in journals like Collapse, Deleuze Studies and Continental Philosophy Review. His books include This Deleuzian Century: Art, Activism, Life (edited with Rosi Braidotti) (2015) and New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (edited with Iris van der Tuin) (2012). Currently, Dolphijn is finishing a new monograph entitled Surfaces: How Philosophy and Art Matter.

Common Conflict
Common Conflict
‘Hot Winter Press’ zines at We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning at Casco by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido (Jazael Olguinzapata), 2015. – Photo: Sven Lütticken

From its inception, Open! and Casco’s series Commonist Aesthetics was meant neither as a celebration nor as a debunking exercise, but as a critical inquiry. The commons certainly is not lacking in those who hype the cause, nor in vehement detractors. For the Invisible Committee, an example, ‘commonism’ is identified with Ostromite liberal managerialism:

Governing the Commons is the title of the recent bestseller by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, who has defined eight principles for ‘managing the commons.’ Understanding there is a place for them in an ‘administration of the commons’ that remains to be invented, [Antonio] Negri and associates have embraced this theory, which is perfectly liberal at its core…

…[They] are inclined to make the ‘commons’ into the latest metaphysical principle to come out of the West’s magical hat. An arche, they say, in the sense of that which ‘organizes, commands, and rules all political activity,’ a new ‘beginning’ that will give birth to new institutions and a new world government.1

And is the excitement in some art world circles (however marginal they may be) for forms of commoning, or at least the rhetoric of commoning, not deeply suspicious? In her essay for Commonist Aesthetics, Marina Vishmidt suggested that a ‘structural and ideological affinity already holds between “commonist” politics and the field of art practices’; both, she argues, ‘are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, often interstices and spare capacities, “making do” as in the “sharing economy.”’ Making changes in the here and now sounds good when the alternative is waiting for a phantasmagorical revolution. But is the exclusive privileging of ‘making do’ under current conditions not equally problematical – especially if connected to the hope that enough cute grass-rootsy commonizing activity will attain such critical mass that capitalism will, after all, disappear or morph beyond recognition? Vishmidt states in the aforementioned text: ‘The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006) to several of a number of cultural scenes of inquiry into “the commons” would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilisation.’

Nonetheless, we would not have pursued Commonist Aesthetics if we agreed that commons discourse is completely bankrupt and utterly irredeemable. In a passage recently evoked by Katharine Gibson during a lecture at Casco, Massimo de Angelis acknowledges that commoning is often instrumentalized not in order ‘to provide alternatives to capital, but to make a particular node of capital – a region or a city – more competitive, while somehow addressing the problems of reproduction at the same time.’ However, he maintains that ‘in spite of capital’s strategies to use a commons fix to the problems it creates while never really solving them, commons may well be part of a different historical development.’2

This ‘may well be’ continues to hover over the debate, a debate that we wish to develop and intensify with this ‘virtual roundtable’ titled Common Conflict, mirrored by a public forum at Casco on 12 March. Later this year, the whole Commonist Aesthetics project will be rounded off by a book publication.

For Common Conflict, we have confronted a number of authors with a series of questions, some or many of which may be leading questions. The authors were free to pick and choose, or ignore, as they saw fit; to rephrase and reroute a line of questioning; and to examine their own as well as others’ practices and theoretical presuppositions.

Is the notion of the commons subject to an ontological essentialization? Is dehistoricization tantamount to depoliticization?

The resurgence of the commons is clearly linked to the decline of the public sector, at least in Europe. Is commonism tacitly complicit with the ever further dismantling of the state and the public? Does the state need to be reclaimed?

Does the commonist discourse have a potential depoliticizing effect, being compatible with hazy visions of the ‘sharing economy’ and an Ostrom-style governance? What are the consequences of the division between ‘Ostromites’ interested in governing the commons and autonomists eager to prefigure a coming insurrection or a coming community?

How does, or should, commonist self-organization around specific issues relate to more general antagonisms and struggles? Is commonism in need of a wider autonomist horizon and bona-fide leftist strategy – or are ‘actually existing’ commonist tactics, however compromised, a daily reminder of the bankruptcy of more fundamental, more rigorous, more dialectically canny leftist positions?

What is the relation between theories of the commons / commoning and specific practices? Does the theory lag behind the most cogent practices? Is it often a substitute for actual commoning practices at specific sites for struggles? Can problematic, partial or blocked attempts at commoning be as valid as seemingly successful and exemplary endeavours?

Is the commons’ rhetorical success in parts of the art world indicative of an aestheticization of the social – with aestheticization here being used in its negative Benjaminian sense? Does the all too familiar critique of art institutions need to be followed by an active commoning of institutions? How to proceed with this?

Does the art world focus overly on low-tech forms of commons and commoning, unduly neglecting the digital commons? How can and should online and offline impact each other?

Do we see the beginnings of a commonist aesthetic practice in a more fundamental sense, involving forms of sensuous activity that challenge and go beyond established notions of art and existing institutional forms? Does aesthetic practice allow us to refocus all of the above questions?