A Grammer of Free Cooperation

For the Free Cooperation Newspaper

In ‘A Grammer of the Multitude’ Paul Virno attempts to describe the ‘nature of contemporary production’. It may be no coincidence that his analysis and theses coincides with what is being discussed here under the rubric of ‘free cooperation’.

The questions discussed here are subjective and come up after the very act of ‘refusal’. Was is collaboration once we conclude that life is being reduced to work? I would argue that it is important to leave behind the initial, decisive stage of refusal because one otherwise ends up in individual anarchism or a Stirner-type of egoism in which there is nothing left to collaborate on. There must be a basic consensus on what’s on the agenda, what is to be done. The collobaration question follows from there and cannot be discussed in a political vacuum, otherwise it transforms into a managerial issue. It is a secondary issue with nonetheless grave consequences. Collaboration itself is not generating issues that can be translated into campaigns.

Key to our effort to theorize individual and collective experiences is the recognition that there must be a freedom to refuse to collaborate. This is a constitutive exit strategy. At first instance this may be a mysterious, somewhat paradoxical statement. Why should the idea of the refusal be promoted as an apriori, as the very foundation of all collaboration, as Christoph Spehr has suggested? It almost sounds like a new dogma, a next rule, yet another human right.

The question of ‘free cooperation’ is, in essence, one of organization and comes up after the crisis of the (Fordist) factory model and its political mirror, the political party. This may be obvious. The ‘Italian’ focus on (post)fordism is in fact too much focussed on past twentieth century experiences. It is up to us to update these concepts and come up with case studies of workgroup software, NGO office culture, dotcom leisure work and call centre boredom, project management of events, conditions of free lance labour force.

Even the focus on ‘new social movements’ may already be outdated and should be replaced with much more temporary ruptures. What is politics after its decentralization? Perhaps it is not even useful anymore talk about ‘movements’ (as in ‘movement of movements’). Movement might suggest too much unity and continuity over time. While the term is accurate if we want to express political and cultural diversity, it still has that promise of continuity in it–and with it comes the suggestion that decline and disappearance can be upholded. The movement should never stop. The energy of the Event that gave the movement its character and direction ought not to die. This is where the gestalt of the ‘true believer’ enters the story. Rituals will be invented to bring back the masses to the street, with no matter what price.

According to Virno the crisis of the society of labour is reflected in the multitude itself. We could extend this and say that the multitudes are highly problematic, not for capital or the ‘contol society’, but for the multitudes themselves. It will take a while to get used to the fact that there is no conciousness in and for itself, that revolutionaries can be wary–and bored–of their revolutions. There is talk of a collective exstacy without Grand Resolution. Fragmentation is not a romantic agony but a prime condition of political life.

Virno, again. “Social wealth is produced from science, from the general intellect, rather than from the work delivered by individuals. The work demanded seems reducible to a virtually negligible portion of a life. Science, information, knowlegde in general, cooperation, these present themselves as the key support system of production–these, rather than labor time.” This puts cooperation in a state of exception. It’s not the rule, not the everyday life condition, it’s rare and uncertain. For Virno the difference between labor time and non-labor time falls short. This is exactly why there is so much uncertainty (and curiousity) about collaboration. In what act, work, gesture, idea, there are not traces of collaboration included? The distinction between collaboration and non-collaboration becomes more and more difficult to make. The opposition of lonesome genius versus multi-disciplanary team sounds like an odd lifestyle choice.

What is at stake is the way in which negotiations take place inside each particular ‘credit’ economy. Which traces remain visible of a collaboration? Can terms of ownership be (re)negotiated further along the line or have forms of ownership and division of labour been fixed at day one? How many ‘defeated collaborations’ one can bear? Human may once have been ‘social animals’ but that doesn’t mean act like ants. There is enough herd mentality and this makes it hard, even impossible to promote collaboration as a virtue. Yet, both wisedom and knowlegde have blocked the road back to the land of Zarathustra. It is not society that keeps us away from individuation.

The main issue is the method of evaluation. Do we look back in anger when
groups fall apart?

I find it hard to distinguish between the necessity to work in groups, for
instance to produce large and complex art works, conferences, festivals,
protests or publications, and the desire to overcome isolation when you do
individual work. Christoph Spehr has got a lot to say about the bright and
dark of free cooperation.

For many of the new media art works collaboration is an absolute must
because the Individual Artist as Genius simply does not has all the skills
to do visuals, 3D, sound, editing, performance and manage the whole process
in terms of human resources and finance. The question there would one of
‘economy of acknowledgement’ (a whole topic in itself…) and whether works
are produced under the name of a single artist (let’s say Bill Viola) or,
more confirm the reality, a group name. The film industry must have a whole
history about the birth of the credits, and the battles that happened in
order to get there. When I hear the word ‘collaboration’ I always think
about anonymous early renaissance painters and how ‘individuals’ emerged out
of that studio system. That’s seen as progess of enlightment. In our times
it’s seen as something unique if individuals can work together in a group.
People are really curious about the internal social dynamics within a group.
Collaboration provokes that kind of voyeurism because people presume trouble
(which always surprised me). For almost twenty me and a few friends
published material under the name of Adilkno (or Bilwet in Dutch/German).
You can have a look at our website. Most of the texts about the Adilkno
group itself are in only Dutch. If you want, have a look at our group
painting: http://www.thing.desk.nl/bilwet/PIX/BILWET93.gif. Lots of our
texts are translated into English or German but not so much the material
about ourselves. Out of that experience grew my collaboration with Pit
Schultz and the early nettime activities in the mid nineties. These days
most of my collaborations are 99% virtual.

I my view a lot of the offline issues, in real life (IRL), and online are
the same. I find working IRL a luxury and big fun. It’s pretty unique if you
can collaborate with a group in your own town–and continue that on a long
term basis.

I don’t think people on this list have posted ‘technocratic’ content. The
more people will work online, the more it is important to understand that
the technical architecture of the tools we use is shaping our social
experiences. There would be a lot gained if there was more awareness of the
limitations of new media. Trebor and I would like to focus on that aspect
but are aware that there is whole range of topics that is as much, if not
more, important. For instance the gender aspect and the productive power
relationships of male-male, male-female, female-female collaborations.

here some references to the work of the independent German theorist Klaus
Theweleit. In the early eighties he worked in the same department as
Friedrich Kittler, in Freiburg. Their work on gender, media and
collaboration has striking similarities, that is, they must have discussed
this topic a lot back then.

Both Theweleit and Kittler stress the importance of the (Deleuzian)
productive element of the man-female-machine triangle. Now, this can also be
a male-medium-male connection or a female-medium-female one, but obviously,
in male dominated heterosexual societies, the male-female-machine one is the
dominant one. Theweleit looks into the oppressive aspect, in which males
‘sacrifice’ female bodies as their medium.

I wonder if such gender production stories are still out there. I can
imagine that the gender aspect is still there but is not being played out
through technology so much. If I think about Internet and the computer it is
the bachelor’s machine that I think of, not the male genius author who is
dictating his book to his secretary/lover, but I might be wrong there. Why
was the shift from the typewriter to Pc-based word processing so crucial in
this respect?

Some related URLs:

Overview of Theweleit’s Theory of Media, Art and Collaboration

Review of Klaus Theweleit’s Book of Kings, second volume

Review of Klaus Theweleit’s Book of Kings, second volume