There is no commons without a communist movement | Raqs Media Collective

I.) In a time of periodic riots, enthusiastic uprisings and the rejuvenation of mass mobilizations of the oppressed, a new rebellious subjectivity has re-emerged onto the scene. For a moment in recent history no future appeared for this class of the excluded, because a common collective present was held captive by the rule of profit and the logic of disempowerment. Today, however, a new rebellious class is emerging that is recommencing a history of struggle. Simultaneously destructive, dynamic and creative, this project has advanced the capacity to unlock and forward a formerly inexistent possibility: a universally viable project for emancipation outside the regime of dispossession, acculturated lifestyles and callous self-interest.

II.) Contemporary emancipatory politics makes room for that which was formerly inexistent. The examples of this form of subjectivity are as numerous as they are brilliant: indigenous councils in Bolivia; the emergence of Syriza, the Coalition of Radical Left in Greece; tenant organizing from Shanghai to Vancouver; weekly student demonstrations in Quebec. In these instances, the new lexicon for political consciousness is immediately produced, formed through occupations, strikes and grassroots organizing. From the perspective of the struggle, the terrain of politics has shifted both at the level of praxis — in terms of the novel invention of new organizations and movements — but also with the medium of thinking the political conjuncture and its contradictions through mass mobilization. For those who have made it their priority to side with mass politics, the assumed inevitability of the class relation no longer appears inevitable. The long twilight of left-wing melancholia that has tainted potential militants with cynical nihilism and pious self-righteousness has lost legitimacy, insofar as greater numbers are determined to throw every molecule of their being into the dawn of communism’s rebirth. The historical project of emancipation is no longer held in by the seal of obsolescence, or worse, treated longingly with nostalgia. If there is any sort of critique of the market that has gained relevance, it is a critique sutured to an emancipatory project that is intent on abolishing the class relation and the existing state of things.

Alain Badiou “Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings” (2012)

III.) Although the history of struggle has been gloriously re-announced, its rebirth is not fully formed or stable. It is just as precarious as it is latent, contingent as it is necessary, joyous as it is humbling. Just as there might be a revolutionary upsurge one month, the following weeks might bear witness to a revanchist subjectivity. In all instances, regression is just around the corner rearing its ugly head, amassing at the same time as its counterpart, revolution. On the terrain of present struggles, our particular moment should be thought of as being placed in an interval: a moment where History can go one way or the other (to re-phrase an oft-quoted line by Stan Douglas). The question of political organizing and perseverance remains the question of the day. That truth is unmistakable: the long slow movement of history is gathering strength as people are building alliances and coalitions, fostering political links with one another, and working tirelessly to revive and actualize a communist movement.

IV.) If the idea of communism remains as strong as ever, its actualization should be said to be hovering in state of potentiality. But unlike the just-past, when the actuality of communism was almost entirely inexistent, its present realization is gradually gathering strength. The root of the project is essentially the same, namely, that the logic of class and the systematic forms of subjugation can be overcome in the realization of a form of society that is collectively-determined. Situated outside the profit motive and private private property, communism is the very name that realizes a non-statist, innovative and rebellious subjectivity. As the communist movement takes greater ground, universal humanity assumes a greater destiny in the form of the unbound politics of a common political struggle.

IV.) To think in terms of latency, or the actuality of communism latent in this present, necessitates looking towards an actually unfolding horizon that is both here — in the moments of class struggle in Vancouver in our own moment — but also everywhere else that people are compelled to work through the contradictions of a shared, collective moment. Placed at an interval in history, the present moment necessitates siding with an emergent constitutive power whose future has not yet been determined. Situated in this gap, the politics of organizing is the only means to realize the idea. Outside of Quebec, Bolivia, and Occupy encampments, a political subjectivity that is fused to a communist politics is just as glorious and enthusiastic as it is ambiguous and unstable. Although an image of this future may find common ground in spectacular images of protests and occupations, in reality, its presentation lacks stability, and beyond occupations, an image of continued fidelity is often found insufficient or wholly lacking.

V.) When the idea of communism is actualized today, politics becomes spatial: that which has no place to be comes to make its own place. That which is placeless should be understood as the commons. Raqs Media Collective’s Communist Latento (2010), composed by the New-Dehli based collective of Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrate Sengupta, attempts to figure this contradiction and inscribe its movement. Raqs’ the Latento combines photographs of a transparent plastic wrap and arrows with short aphorisms that re-rethink and re-write the Communist Manifesto (1848) of old .

Raqs Media Collective – Fragments from a Communist Latento (2010)

In contrast to a manifesto that declares a clear purpose or project, Raqs’ Latento is an elaboration of that which is latent and hidden. The Latento matches the collective’s own mandate to explore “rarely asked questions” in opposition to the “frequently asked questions” of modern bureaucratic society. A survey of their work over the past three decades reveals a predisposition to creatively rethink the commons through a whole set of different sources: fleeting shadows, furtive ciphers and other unexpected episodes and hidden anomalies. Although Raqs Latento omits the biting clarity of the Communist Manifesto and its declarative call to class struggle, these particular theses are unique, insofar as they move in the realm of the provisional, enigmatic and secretive.

VI.) From the perspective of the Latento, politics of the commons gathers ground. In its sparse installation, deriving a logic from the aphoristic uncertainty of political organizing and affiliation, the panels furnish the present conjuncture with prefigurative notes of an emergent politics. Its operations dislocate from one time the possibility of another.

Raqs Media Collective – Fragments from a Communist Latento (2010)

At the time of the work’s composition, it was (in their words) “not desirable that the future be captive to the present,” since the present was explicitly dominated by the regime of capitalist domination. This statement still rings true today. If the historic avant-garde of almost a century ago had once treated the future with optimism, enthusiasm and potential, the oppressed of the just-past rallied around the cry: “no future/no future/no future.” The future of yesterday was only enthusiastic insofar it was incorporated into a speculative economy that transformed every-thing into commodity, every optimistic instance into an infinitely expanding commercial potential. As every desire transformed into a sparkling image on display, these futures appeared just as they were: false presents manufacturing false needs for a false future. When life was left lacking in every temporal dimension, surely there was also no History, just the eternal return of the same.

Raq Media Collective – Reading Light (2011)

VII.) To overcome the temporal burden of profit and the end of history, time must shatter without sentiment. Outside the empty homogenous time of capital, the expropriated time of communism renders inoperative  the dispossessed time of private property from its possession by the few: managers, oligarchs, the elite. The Latento prefigures this operation, and in the process, the appropriated time of communism is re-inspired and unfurls at its edges. Time does not stop, nor do clocks get shot out, rather, a whole new regime of time is created that is more unexpected and unrestrained (think here of the decimal time instigated during the French Revolution). What it initiates is a counterfinality to the end of history. The time of emancipation should be regarded then as an aberration — an exception from the normal functioning of the world and the space of social reproduction. If history has been reborn, the “outside-time” of the aberration — time’s countertendency — is rekindled by the glorious lightning spark of a persistent revolt.

Raqs Media Collective – Fragments from a Communist Latento (2010)

VIII.) Time that is stroked by the collective will of universal emancipation forks and steadies itself on an errant path. An emancipated time resembles what Borges acknowledges in The Garden of Forking Paths (1941),  “the web of time which approaches, forks, is cut off or unacknowledged for centuries, embracing every possibility.”  Just as capital seeks to extinguish every self-organized future in the present moment, it also strives to extinguish past histories of struggle. In Raqs’ Latento, the forgotten term of a repressed history of struggle holds the key to a latent present. The past is understood through the lens of counterfinality. The revival of past moments of struggle, re-interpreted in our moment, instills an already-existing alternative that may, at times, appear irretrievable in our own temporality of struggle. As the latency of communism is prefigured and actualized, the false movements of a false past-present-future are arrested.

IX.) The search for another time is a search laboring to distinguish the old from the new. It is a time that integrates the ruination of the old order into its very being. “The collective transformation of the world requires the continuous networking of an infinite array of otherwise impossible choices.” From the perspective of a dominant power, emancipation is framed as an impossibility. As the saying goes, “capitalism is here to stay.” Admixed with this sentiment is the assumption that everyone should stay in their allotted place. But if the last two years have shown anything at all, action by people working at the level of mass mobilization can cause the whole terrain of what is possible/impossible to be thrown wide open. The collective transformation of the situation opens up the space for further action: either you continue with the established logic of the world or you couple yourself to the array of “impossible choices” that characterizes the necessary work of emancipation. As the impossible is actualized, what was once inexistent becomes maximally existent again. From within the situation, this is what distinguishes the new order from the old.

X.) To speak more specifically to the demonstrations of last year, any movement of emancipation requires continuous fidelity for any struggle to move beyond latency and persist as a sustained project of liberation. To use a phrase popularized by Raqs in a recent essay in e-flux titled Earthworms Dancing: Notes for a Biennal in Slow Motion (2009), “the moment after the event is also the moment before the event.” The post-evental sequence in Raqs’ Thesis VI, can also be called organization: the very means to invent a body capable of sustaining the capacity for further action. “Networks” cannot be merely reduced to the communicative potentiality of social media and other forms of communication that are just there, laying around (Pamela M. Lee makes this her prerogative in the beautifully written essay in Artforum on Raqs). Rather ‘networks’ should also be understood as the diffuse forms of sociality that makes up the tedious and dull rendezvous of organizing. Beyond any speculation that longs for a  romantic spontaneous break with the existing order, political organizing furnishes militants with the ability to carry forward and remain true to a political sequence without lapsing back into the obscure, dogmatic and inconsequential.

XI.) A question emerges from these theses: what does the deployment of the practices of communism look like in art beyond this sparse and pithy Latento? In an another article published in e-flux in Janurary 2010, Raqs provides a quote from Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore that is helpful. During his visit to Shanghai 1925, Tagore asserted the following:

“The poet [and here, all we need to do is to substitute “artist” for “poet”]’s mission is to attract the voice which is yet inaudible in the air; to inspire faith in a dream which is unfulfilled; to bring the earliest tidings of the unborn flower to a skeptic world.”

According to Tagore, spoken through Raqs, the poet-artist is thrown into the world, compelled by the inexistent shimmering in their midst. In the aleatory encounter with art, the poet is possessed to function as art’s material support. It is its self-realizing movement. Tragore is not describing the sight of divine inspiration and choice, but rather the encounter with an irreconcilable drive. Outside the idolatrous cult of the work of art and its mythology, art’s existence is a question of a drive: how to trace out its own prefigurative action at the point of its highest incompatibility with the given state of things.

Raqs Media Collective – The Primary Education of the Autodidact (2012)

XII.) The act of poetry is the production of an interval in the structured ordering of the world. The most recent work of Raqs, The Primary Education of the Autodidact (2012), is helpful to illustrate this process. Plastered on the walls of the SFU Centre for Contemporary Art, the piece presents scorched spines of books not-yet written. Cluttered like wallpaper, each book is without content. Oversized and declarative, the books are imposing but remain inaudible. On the windows, they are plastered like advertisements, yet they are not ruled by the profit motive.  They come from nowhere, sent to no-one in particular, blanketing the exterior gallery like a leftovers of knowledge awaiting deployment.

Surfacing from a handful of panels, three shadowy figures emerge in order to wipe the spines clean. From the gallery handout, we are told that this figure is an Autodidact whose own education is on display. Her movements adopt a similar tenor to the transition marked by the camera of Raqs’ Communist Latento. The trace of her thoughts activates the covers, yet the books exist as they are: knowledge presented in its nakedness — inconsistent and excessive. But on these same walls activated by the autodidact, the erased content transforms into a thought, insofar as it remains as it is: presented in its barren self-negation. Her thought is present on the scene but it also subtracted from any definitive appearance.

XIII.) Similar to any interval, the autodidact appears only to disappear, and like a subject — either a collectivizable body or a series of artistic works — the autodidact is the very substance that incorporates this gap into her being. That is why the autodidact appears as shadow who hovers on the wall of the building. The autodidact has no backstory nor has she fully arrived. She comes from no-where, (and from our perspective), she appears intent on reading everything. Situated in her own unique temporality, her presence is multiple. In her presentation, she is more humble and mysterious than monumental and refined. As an unremitting student she shifts from one shelf to another and appears to run the risk of making mistakes. Neither a super expert nor a refined academic, the autodidact is able to see things invisible to the specialist. No doubt, her presence is paradigm to think through: it is a claim that our moment’s intelligibility is not presupposed, set, or over-determined, but slightly displaced, always-already worked-over, if not potentially salvageable

XIV.) In Raqs’ words, the barren bookshelves most resemble parts of the chemist’s periodic table that have not been uncovered and remain uninhabited. A cavernous stretch of not-yet-realizable-knowledge. Their absence summons a future understanding that hovers in a state of potentiality. Just as new knowledges are produced in the unfolding of a situation, potentiality is always anticipated, displaced to a new terrain awaiting its actualization.  The pages of her books on the other hand, are unwritten as they contain everything that knowledge is immediately becoming. But as Raqs tells us in the gallery booklet, these books are “not unread.” They swell in the passions of her experience, and she is at anytime anybody: a cleaner, a student, a misfit. In other words, a figure of universality, someone who is anyone and everyone whatsoever.

XV.) Sartre once said that the work of the committed writer was to reveal, demonstrate, and dissolve myths and fetishes in a “critical acid bath.” The autodidact’s reading is committed, and just like a committed writer in the class struggle she sides with the destructive tendency characteristic of novelty. The same must be said of the reader. Like the writer, she sides with the destruction of the existing. Her bath is no leisurely soak. Instead, it is an accelerated act of ruination of writing in the service of necessity. But what is left over after these myths and fetishes are removed from this gurgling acid-wash? The answer to this question is not easily apparent from the installation itself.  Recourse to another Raqs work, The Philosophy of Namak Haraam (2012), is helpful here.

Raqs Media Collective – The Philosophy of Namak Haraam (2012)

In Hindi ‘namak’ is translated as salt, while ‘haraam’ is interpreted as untrustworthy, treacherous or dirty. There is an old belief in Indian culture that to eat a person’s salt is to partake in another’s hospitality. When there is a rift between two friends, the two friends need to reseal their friendship by eating salt together. The Namak Haraam, on the other hand, is the one who is not true to their salt and breaks the covenant of friendship.  Raqs asks the pertinent question:

“How to break and betray, if and when necessary, the covenants of salt, the obligations of servitude and loyalty? How to be a namak-haraam? Why spill the salt of the master? Every book demands another, but not all of them get written. Every debt demands to be paid, but not all are redeemed. Then there are the debts that we owe to all that we read, which we can never really repay. In that sense we are all ‘Namak-Haraams’, defaulters to the debt of purloined knowledge.”

XVII.) No debts. A politics of the commons does not side with possession, exchange and narcissistic self-identification. The commons is at once (and all the time) a site of unencumbered possibility. “The diversity of the commons challenges the singularity of property. There is only one way to possess something but there can be countless ways to share it.”  The commons potentiality is unlimited, since it is not governed by the fate and destiny of capital.

Raqs Media Collective – Fragments from a Communist Latento (2010)

The autodidact is the paradigm for this universal subject of emancipation. She prefigures what is written in the Latento. This is precisely where the two works by Raqs intersect. For the autodidact, the books on the shelves are appropriated according to her lived experience. The presence of the autodidact marks-out the scene’s own destruction, but it also traces out her thought’s crepuscular rebirth. The books are present insofar as she desires to move through the ruin’s insubstantial state. As long as she exists, the autodidact’s destructive character revives as much as it erases and devastates. In this sense, the books are an exhibit of the collective commonwealth of knowledge liberated from both its thoughtless utilitarian use and its cold exchange relation. It is a form of knowledge positioned as a site of pure potential.