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One for the theory geeks among us: An interview with Minor Compositions

Posted on December 28th, 2009 in AK Allies, Anarchist Publishers

Like all good avant-garde projects, Minor Compositions, the new theory-focused publishing project that grew out of the UK-based portion of the Autonomedia collective, just kind of appeared one day along with its debut release, Precarious Rhapsody, an unexpectedly fascinating series of reflections by the too-long-ignored (in the English-speaking world) Italian autonomist thinker and media activist Franco Berardi, better-known as Bifo. This was something of a cause for celebration in my household: the need for more of Bifo’s work to appear in English has been a topic of discussion around my house for a while, and Bifo was actually one one of the authors on my “priority list” of possible future projects that I created when I was first applying for the job at AK Press many months ago. And, it was doubly exciting to find out that I knew some of the folks behind this new and wonderful publishing initiative, dedicated to making more avant-garde approaches to everyday practice available for English-speaking readers, and that I could pump them for information on the project, the current books in production, and what they’ve got planned for the future.

Read on, and be sure to check out the Minor Compositions website. And, if you’re on the east coast, I strongly encourage you to check out one of the events that UK-based author Stevphen Shukaitis is doing for his new Minor Compositions book, Imaginal Machines. He’ll be at Red Emma’s in Baltimore on January 6, at the Wooden Shoe in Philly on January 7, and at Bluestockings in New York on January 8.

AK Press: Tell me a little bit about your new project, Minor Compositions—how did it come into being, and why?

Minor CompositionsMinor Compositions: Minor Compositions is a research – theorizing – publishing project that is located, at the moment, within the London metropolitan basin of collective intelligence. Its main aim is to bring together, develop, and mutate forms of autonomist thought and practice, avant-garde aesthetics, and an everyday approach to politics. To take up a useful distinction made by Alan Toner, this is to see not from a position of ‘producer consciousness’ (“we’re a publisher, we make books”) but rather from a position of protagonist consciousness (“we make books because it is part of participating in social movement and struggle”). So the production of a text is not something that is thought in isolation but how it connects and develops moments of thinking collectively. This draws a good deal of inspiration from the autonomist notion of militant research and workers’ inquiry, expanding it beyond inquiry into particular bounded workplaces into a more general investigation of cultural labor, social reproduction, and the relationship between antagonistic energies and attempts to govern them.

As for how and why it came into being, that is a bit like asking why the chicken crossed the road. It was there, which is to say that we saw some particular questions that could be usefully explored through such an approach. In the past ten years, or even longer (forty or fifty years) there has been increased interest in radical politics as cultural politics. Here one can see that the aspects of the anti-globalization movement that were focused on most were its cultural politics, the theatricality or the playfulness of demonstrations. Similarly, and very much connected to this, there has been a rise of interest in political art, or “activist art” within the museum and gallery world. It is problematic that this interest in art and politics often neglects questions of political economy. Cultural politics becomes substituted for all forms of politics. But to raise the specter of political economy is not a call to return to some sort of reductive Marxism that sees cultural struggles as adjuncts to the “real struggles” around labor. And it’s through the autonomist notion of class composition, looking at the relation between the building of social movement potential to radically transform the world and the continual effort to turn these energies into new modes of capitalist production and governance, that this question can be opened and re-thought in a different, and hopefully more useful manner.

AK: And it’s an imprint of Autonomedia, is that right? Or a separate project?

MC: Spinoza tells us there is only one substance, namely god or nature. From this we can logically conclude that Autonomedia and Minor Compositions are indeed part of a unified fabric of being, along with puppy dogs, your mother’s pool cue, and the entirety of the 1986 Mets. That, however, does not adequately describe the particular relation between different modes of becoming involved. The evaluation of compositional modes is one of history and time, which of course do not exist. It is as when Rimbaud says that “I is an other”: Minor Compositions is both a part of Autonomedia and a becoming-other compositional mixture of Autonomedia that is not totally of it, that is the other to the self that is Autonomedia.

AK: Wasn’t that just a bunch of gobbledlygook? What do you mean that by that? How does it practically work?

MC: Perhaps. How does it work? Simply, by breaking down, like all forms of desiring machines. But that’s probably not what you mean. So let’s say more practically that within the realm of autonomous media production there are zones of autonomy within the larger framework of imaginal production. These are points and processes of conjunction where Autonomedia is less a centralized location, but rather where different forces collaborate in ways that would not be possible without that framework. And if you look over the history of what Autonomedia has published you will see these kinds of collaborations and joint projects taking place under the proper name “umbrella” of Autonomedia, from joint projects during the 90s with Black & Red, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and the Info.Interactivist project (coordinated with Interactivist and ABC No Rio). More recent joint projects include the collaborations that led to the DATA Browser series, the Shut Them Down! book with the Dissent! Network, and the Proud to Be Flesh anthology that compiles the best of Mute Magazine. This is part of the shift from publisher as producer to publisher as assemblage, as one node in a larger process of composition.

AK: The first thing I thought of when I heard the imprint’s title was Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka, the subtitle of which is “Towards a Minor Literature.” Knowing a little bit about the books you’re publishing in the imprint, I’m guessing that there’s some resonance here?

MC: Yes, there certainly is a good deal of resonance there. But as Zafer Aracagök recently explored in his Desonance (2009), every resonance is also contains a form of uncontrolled dissonance existing, even if only potentially, within the series of relations or connections it expresses. Having said that, the approach to questions of language, literature, and expression that Deleuze & Guattari formulate here, one not based on developing one’s own language or form of representation, but working through and transforming existing forms, making them strange to themselves, is quite useful for thinking through these questions. The particular conjunction of the minor and class composition, or perhaps composition more generally (as Bifo has suggested), was particularly inspired by the work of Nick Thoburn, who wrote a lovely book called Deleuze, Marx, and Politics.

The notion of the minor figures much more broadly in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, underpinning an approach to politics not based on attempting to seize and control apparatuses of power, but working beneath and below them through forms of creative subtraction from domination. But these are ideas that obviously go much beyond Deleuze and Guattari’s work and have a good deal of resonance with what, in autonomist politics, is worked through with the notion of exodus. So it’s important to not see the moment where these notions are attached to a proper name(s) as being the moment of invention, or the only moment of creative thought. It’s the same question posed by those who have “gone to croatan,” by escaped slaves and maroon communities, or the forms of linguistic evasion practiced by gypsies, criminals, and other marginalized or oppressed communities develop. Another aspect of the project is to connect how these things are theorized in philosophy and social theory with the radical histories and practices that express similar positions, although often without using the same language.

AK: Tell me a little bit about the books that have just recently appeared under the auspices of Minor Compositions.

Precarious RhapsodyMC: Thus far there have been two books published. The first is Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of post-alpha generation by Franco “Bifo” Berardi. Bifo was part of the autonomist movement in Italy starting in the 1960s and 70s, particularly in the more “diffuse” and “creative” sections that developed in Bologna in the late 70s around pirate radio, questions of technology, and political arts. They wanted to adapt the strategies of the avant-garde for the media sphere of the time, to take them from marginal phenomena to ones that could intervene in the mass media sphere, or become a mass avant-garde. In this book, Bifo is drawing from and looking back on this history, as well as the analyses of labor struggles and the struggles for the liberation of imagination and desire, and how these often get overwhelmed by the immense flows of technological interactions and communications. Or, as he would say it, how the pathological nature of the overwhelming nature of informational labor tends to block or pre-empt social recomposition. In this way, it can be seen as a kind of correction to the sometimes hyper-optimism that inflects some forms of autonomist analysis.

Imaginal MachinesThe second book released is Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life by Stevphen Shukaitis. In many ways this book is a very good complement to the Bifo book in that it explores the formation, emergence, and development of collective imagination in social movement organizing, drawing both from autonomist analysis and avant-garde aesthetics. But if Bifo’s moment of politicization is in the 1960s and 70s, this book draws more from the cultural ferment and organizing during 1990s and the anti-globalization movement. The main idea is exploring forms of imagination created by different political projects or approaches to organizing, like workers cooperatives, autonomous feminist groups, arts collectives, and so forth. Rather than assuming imagination is an individual and almost mystical power, as often assumed from the left-over baggage of a romanticist notion of human creativity, how is that different forms of social interaction create the imaginal machines that we participate in? And that means neither pure celebration nor critique, but seeing how different forms of collective imagination take us, but also their limitations, and trying to learn from these potentials as well as limitations.

AK: Any other titles in the pipeline that we should be on the lookout for?

MC: There are several titles in the works that are very exciting including a book by Colectivo Situaciones, the Argentinean autonomist group and militant research collective, and a book on the relation between anarchism and Islam by Mohammed Jean Veneuse. At some point, there will be a collection of writing by the Spanish feminist collective Precarias a la Deriva and a series of shorter pamphlets by authors including Craig Saper, Stephen Duncombe, and Steve Lambert. [Note from Kate: I’m incredibly excited about the forthcoming pamphlet by Craig Saper. Craig was the best professor I ever had as an undergraduate, and he’s the person who really cemented my love of strange and wonderful radical theory many, many years ago. If you’ve never checked out his books Networked Art and Artificial Mythologies, you should. I should also mention that I’ve lately developed a real love of small books and theory in bite-sized pamphlet form. Possibly because I just don’t have as much time to read massive works of theory these days as I used to. But also because I think that writing for a short format is something of an art form, and it’s something that a great many excellent authors are abysmally bad at. Here’s hoping Minor Compositions helps their authors to figure out how to pull it off!]

AK: I also saw that you’ve just recently launched the Minor Compositions websiteit looks really great (the design is fantastic)! Are there plans to expand the website’s content to complement the books that will appear in print form?

MC: Thanks! The design was stolen from some web design template site. Or maybe détourned. We’ll let the high priests and executors of the intellectual inheritance of the SI quibble over whether that’s a proper use of the term. As for the creation of more online content, yes, that is part of the plan, although there is enough energy needed just to get things started, and those elements will develop with time. Given the focus on composition as a bridge and meeting point between labor and aesthetics it would be particularly fruitful if this was not explored not only through analytical discussion and writing, but also through forms of musical production, video production, poetry, and spoken word, and other forms of material that move beyond analytic writing. And these would be linked with series of encounters and events as well. And you can see that has somewhat started with some posting and embedding and some audio materials, such as some presentation audio from Bifo and Chris Carlsson as well as some recordings of the Japanese surrealist blues artist Kan Mikami. But that’s just a start. More broadly one could say that social analysis develops most creatively when it, rather than staying at the level of what is most often recognized as analytic, departs that and develops in the resonating corridors of collective imagination. Dmitry Vilensky and Alexei Penzin from Chto Delat, the Russian avant-garde arts and philosophy paper, made a very strong case in talk they gave in London for moving analytical artistic knowledges into development through imaginative circulation. This becomes more possible when ideas are explored in multiple forms, different performative forms. So, yes that will certainly be something to be worked on.

AK: I have to ask this, because I’m kind of obsessed with it right now: any feelings on ebooks, and on whether you’ll make Minor Compositions titles available in ebook format?

MC: Well, at the risk of being a bit rude, I’d first suggest you get some more interesting obsessions. Perhaps the nice folks at RE/Search could give you some advice on that. But as for your actual question, the first step that has been taken is the posting of the PDFs of all titles online for free. All of the titles are provided freely online as PDFs for several reasons. One, given the fairly drastic changes in networks of distributors and outlets for radical publishing (which has become more centralized as a good number of independent distributors have folded) distributing titles can be quite difficult. The provision of materials freely online can partially help working around those bottlenecks, although this raises other questions and problems.

At the present moment there are no plans to format them especially for kindling or whatever the word for that is. It seems likely that these technologies will soon develop to be able to use regular PDF format anyways, and that will make available many more titles for use on them without requiring additional re-formatting by publishers. Secondly, isn’t the idea of reading whole books from a small digital screen somewhat alienating? One of the arguments that Bifo raises in his book is that the sheer volume of immaterial and communicative labor we’re enmeshed in, interacting with screens and digital communications devices, has become overwhelming to the point of being pathological. If one takes this argument seriously then being a bit wary about these things is not necessarily a bad thing. And that’s why it’s important not to place all the emphasis on just text, or texts in isolation, but multiple forms of engagement, from events and gatherings to exploring ideas in music and theater.

AK: Hey, be nice! No seriously, my obsession with ebooks is getting ridiculous, since I don’t own, and will most likely never be able to afford a Kindle-thing, and I love every aspect of the printed book … but I’m completely fascinated by the world of ebooks. Actually, there’s a great essay by Ben Dangl, author of AK’s Price of Fire, and the forthcoming Dancing with Dynamite, on why he’ll never buy a Kindle. Everyone should read it… and then cross your fingers that Ben doesn’t kill me when I suggest releasing an e-version of his new book! Anything else important or exciting you want to put out into the Blogosphere?

MC: It has been said that the role of citations and references is quite similar to the role of shouting out to your crew in hip hop. Perhaps. But taking a cue from that suggestion perhaps would be nice to throw out some mentions of a few projects coming out soon based on similar ideas and approaches that are quite exciting. This is Forever has put together a number of really interesting events recently in NYC developing autonomist thought and politics. The British Radical History Group continues to organize really interesting and amazing radical history events and gatherings. The Team Colors book that AK is doing will certainly be very exciting and a very welcome expansion and continuation of traditions of militant research. The new issue of Turbulence is, much like all of the issues thus far, a great little gem filled with well-written and accessible autonomist analysis. And there is an exciting gathering planned for Minneapolis next April entitled “Beneath the University, the Commons,” which takes up a number of the same themes that Minor Compositions works with.