Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Vivian Abenshushan

The No-Work Paradox

An Interview with Vivian Abenshushan by Gabriela Méndez Cota

Mediating 'Biopolitics and Connective Mutation' by Franco 'Bifo' Berardi from vol. 7 (2005) Biopolitics

In ‘Biopolitics and Connective Mutation’, Bifo addresses the relation between digital technology and contemporary subjectivity. He begins by acknowledging Foucault’s contribution to the theorization of subjectivity, namely, that of encouraging us to think of the subject as nothing separate from the history of epistemic, imaginary, libidinal and social dispositifs. Yet Foucault’s analysis of the modern age of biopolitics (in which bodies, rather than subjects, are modelled by disciplinary practices and institutions external to them) proved insufficient to understand the exercise of power in late-capitalist societies. These were theorized more deeply by Deleuze and Guattari, who saw the continuities as well as the differences between disciplines and control mechanisms. Control (rather than discipline) is at work when biopolitical mechanisms are inserted inside bodies, and thereby made ‘intrinsic to the very genesis of the conscious organism’. Such is the starting point for Bifo’s understanding of ‘connective mutation’, a process of control through the ‘cabling of psychic, cognitive, genetic and relational circuits’. Ultimate unpredictability, or rather indeterminacy, characterizes all instances of control or ‘cabling’, according to Bifo, including ‘the production of techno-linguistic means of production, psychopharmacology, media production and the production of the imaginary’. These allow Bifo to address the issue of ‘emerging subjectivities performed by techno-biological and techno-cognitive automatisms’ specifically. For him, the problem seems to have a technical cause (i.e., it is exposure to digital media and information-overload that produces schizoid subjectivity). Yet Bifo is no simple-minded techno-determinist. Rather he argues for a redefinition of politics as ‘the art of interference in the relationship between the techno-mediatic universe (dominated by specific agencies which act on the production of the imaginary and on the production of knowledge and are identifiable in the global capitalist corporations), and the ecology of mind’. How, and to what extent, is politics in this sense possible? Bifo’s argument includes many debatable concepts (such as ‘the ecology of mind’) that certainly merit interrogation from situated perspectives.The following interview with Vivian Abenshushan revolves around questions concerning the reach, and limitations, of autonomous media production in a specific context, Mexico.

Vivian Abenshushan (Mexico City, 1972) is a writer and independent editor who, both as an individual and as a member of various collectives, searches for aesthetic strategies and discourses that respond to the unrest of present-day reality in Mexico and internationally. The characters in her fiction are usually divided or eccentric subjects who have a negative relation to the times in which they live, while her essays make use of paradox and irony to explore nomadic freedom away from the productive cogs of contemporary society. Her literary work appears in several anthologies such asBest of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive, 2008) and Voix du Mexique. 16 écrivains contémporains (retors.net, 2009). As an editor, she co-founded Tumbona Ediciones, an independent publishing house interested in experimental writing, heterodox thinking and crossing the boundary between literature and art. In 2001 she created the Laboratory of Expanded Writing, an itinerant workshop that promotes dialogue across disciplines and genres, collective writing and action. She is currently working on The Non-Expert Novel, an experimental writing project that activates and discusses anonymity, spectral writing, randomness, information overload and the mechanisms that allow a work to make itself.

G.M.C.: Writings for the Unemployed was born as a literary blog-diary hosting your personal and political reflections on the exploitative and self-exploitative dynamics of contemporary cultural work. My first question addresses the nature of such dynamics. Bifo focuses on technological control mechanisms that make us consent to exploitation at the psychic and cognitive levels. Hence bloggers and the users of social networks appear as being compliant with a general imperative to constantly express oneself (a form of self-exploitation). It seems to me that in Writings for the Unemployed, however, you have been endevouring to take a critical distance on this imperative rather than simply going along with it, and that you’ve been trying to do so precisely by reflecting on the great paradox of ‘working against work’. What does this paradox mean to you, and what possibilities for psycho-social negotiation do you find in its affirmation?

V.A.: The genesis of Writings for the Unemployed lies in a realisation of my own fatigue, my own restlessness in the midst of capitalist crisis. It is an arch of self-reflections beginning with the collapse of banks in Argentina - a country I travelled to in 2004 - and the 2008 global crisis of capitalism. But alongside economic disaster there was also a personal one, as I suddenly understood that the dynamics of turbo-capitalism perforated my daily life as well as my intellectual life. (I worked for long, exhausting hours on a cultural magazine for which culture had become the least important thing under the pressure of the market.) One afternoon I took a drastic decision: I decided to quit my job. Simultaneously I started a blog where I reflected publicly on contemporary working conditions. The blog evolved into a complex space: it was simultaneously a record of voluntary unemployment, a theoretical investigation, and also a sort of pamphlet, a manifesto. I now call it a ‘counter-essay’, that is, an essay taken to the limit, an experiment not just with language but with existence, an aesthetic and political bet on the transfiguration of daily life.The process was both fertile and disturbing. First, because writing on the internet opened new possibilities for dialogue in multiple directions. It was non-linear writing traversed by other voices and other discourses, but above all it was constantly disrupted by the visits and comments of readers with whom I sustained heated debates. Something else: I wrote anonymously in order to evade the category of authorship (authority) as well as self-promotion (the proper name as brand). My decision was strongly influenced by the ontological anarchism of Hakim Bey, hacker ethics, copyleft and open source movements, along with the rebellious materials of Comité Invisible and Tiquun (as well as various re-readings of Situationism and the Frankfurt School). What I want to say is that at that point the possibilities that Bey, the hackers and cyber-cultural guerrilla movements (such as Luther Blissett) had seen in the internet since the 1990s had not been extinguished: i.e. a counter-network of pirate information, anonymous and rebellious, a space for resistance to global capital, an anchorage for the electronic activism of rebellious groups who could act from within the internet. It is now impossible to sustain such a perspective because the net has become a neighbourhood colonized by global capital. Bifo’s perspective has rendered problematic any apology that might be put forward for the internet as a communitarian space or as a space for resistance. Bey himself has said goodbye to the net, because in less than ten years it has ceased to be a dispositif for change and has become the ideal territory for financial speculation. Everytime we use the internet we are feeding the little coin machine even if we don’t want to. Nicholas Carr has commented on the ‘taylorization of the mind’ by means of search engines that trail us so as to generate algorithms that accelerate and increase the efficiency (that is, the productivity) of the system’s functioning. We now know that the internet is a space for control, for hyper-surveillance, spying, extreme speed and excess information.

I understood some of this when the blog’s readers started asking me to shrink my entries: reflective dimensions do not find a truly viable space in the internet. I went back to the book interface in order to pursue my project by other means. If I wanted to generate a less sporadic, less casual critique of contemporary work, of its diseases, of the ideology that sustains it, of the collective sadness that it creates, I needed time: I needed to go back to the slowness of books, to the ralenti of the essay form. One of the texts in Writings for the Unemployed (‘Notes on Those Ill of Speed’) seeks to formally embody the tensions between the possibilities for openness entailed by new technologies and the psychic catastrophe that is inherent to the infosphere. The two columns of this dialectical essay (a confrontation between opposite views on speed) imply a non-deterministic take on technology, but at the same time, they make it evident that there is no more room for technological naïveté. We, the members of the cognitariat, have experienced in our own flesh (and here the word ‘flesh’ recovers its sense) Bifo’s diagnosis: mind and body collapsed after endless periods of immaterial labour in the uninterrupted schedule of global interconnection. The result is cureless exhaustion, psychic contraction, frightening weakness.

Yet there is still space I think to interrogate the seeming invulnerability of that system, whether it is possible to hack it or to slow it down. Such is the paradox of ‘working against work’: to enter the hacking territory, to mess up the circuits of the little coin-machine, to take notice of our own contradictions and to reflect on them (as opposed to playing them down), to render viral the spirit of collective celebration around ‘quitting’, and from there to subvert reality while projecting a new space for living, producing and sharing. I believe that, as Bifo writes in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, writing, poetry and art are still spaces for resistance. Poetry, Bifo writes, is the excess of language: that is language that cannot be reduced to information, that cannot be exchanged and rather gives way to understanding and sharing on a novel terrain. Ambiguity and irony speak transversally, deviate, render awkward the techno-linguistic automatisms; they break the machine for the mercantilization of signs that operates within the internet. The essay form also does it: it deviates, digresses, wanders as a micropolitics of language essentially linked to delay. Whereas the purpose of the market is to shrink time in order to reduce prices and increase production, the purpose of the essay is the opposite: to suspend time, to delay it from within the work, so as to stay away from the conclusion. Such is the delay that Writings for the Unemployed proposes.

G.M.C.: Is Writings for the Unemployed a response to the situation of immaterial work particularly in the Mexican context?

V.A.: Yes, it is a response to the conditions of intellectual work that prevail in Mexico since the huge cultural breaking point created at the end of the 1990s through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): a transition from state censorship (which was enforced throughout seventy years of one-party rule) to a no less effective market censorship. In 2005, when I started the online project Writings for the Unemployed, one could still feel the devastating effects of the economic crisis of 1994, a sort of fall before the gates of the Promised Land (and without tariffs!) which is whay NAFTA was according to government propaganda. The collateral effects of that fast-track mutation towards neoliberalism and its volatile markets in Mexico are still visible in the destruction of the countryside, massive migration to the United States, the bankruptcy of small local industries, the homogeneization of consumer markets and general precariousness. Neoliberal economic policy disturbed everything from soil chemistry and agricultural output to the ways in which people live and work. The territory of culture also suffered a process of desertification. I would say, without fear of exaggeration, that the expansive wave of the crisis of 1994 was something like a cultural Chernobyl. Dozens of literary magazines disappeared in a matter of months, newspaper cultural supplements were closed or their size reduced, neighbourhood libraries were displaced by ‘book supermarkets’ and the Mexican publishing industry, which had been important and influential in the Spanish-speaking world in the 1960s and 1970s, went into a period of hibernation.

In his essay Tombeau de la fiction, Christian Salmon writes that globalization’s macropolitics have ended up installing everywhere the kingdom of the same: ‘Even worse than the censorship of individual rights to expression is the cultural space that is being imposed by force today. It is a standardized, homogenized space, dominated by the big media agencies and the transnational cultural industries.’ Such is the tyranny of the market: ‘the tyranny of the Same’. In this context, immaterial work has also shifted drastically: writers, students, academics and all other members of the cognitariat now live under the pressure of productivity: to publish or perish. How did this happen? For a long time, writing and ‘wasting time’ had been pretty much the same for capitalist logic. (Hence the view of the writer as a pariah, bum or idle.) Semio-capitalism has attributed to the writer’s work an exchange value that does not relate to its literary value, having suddenly decided that idleness can be sold as entertainment. In the back cover of books, in press articles and in advertising, the aesthetic reality of the work, its objective value, is constantly elided. Once the writer is incorporated as merchandise or spectacle, he or she is in turn condemned to sacrifice fertile leisure for the sake of pauseless work: now they have to do many more things than before; they must give interviews, attend fairs, write articles for different media, keep up their popularity rates on Twitter, have photo-shooting sessions, lecture, record radio capsules, opine on the telephone about euthanasia or Women’s day, socialize, self-promote, write under the pressure of the clock and compete. With Writings for the Unemployed (a book I wrote slowly, over the course of 7 years) I wanted instead to recuperate writing’s de-acceleration, the absorbed pleasure of creation. To me, to write is to be outside of time, away from productivity’s clock.

G.M.C.: Bifo proposes to conceptualize politics as the art of interfering between ‘the technomediatic universe’ and ‘the ecology of mind’. I find it difficult to imagine this interference within the framework of Bifo’s somewhat determinist statements. In his view, digital technology performs a reformatting of the psyche, perception and cognition, in such a way that some abilities grow (such as multi-tasking) and necessarily displace others (such as reflection and empathy). Bifo expresses particular concern about the loss of verbalization, without which, once again, politics is hard to imagine. Perhaps you, as an experimental writer interested in the theoretical horizon to which Bifo belongs, can formulate a counterpoint in this regard, something that allows us to imagine interference within an otherwise deterministic ‘technomediatic universe’.

V.A.: Like many other cultural agents, writers have recognized that computer technology has forever transformed textual production, reading and distribution. It has broken the linearity of discourse and introduced an unprecedented relationship with the reader, so that certain Romantic values such as authorship, inspiration, style, genius, originality and intellectual property are going through a redefinition, if not a straightforward collapse. These new relations of production in which, as Walter Benjamin hoped, ‘the person who reads can become at any time a person who writes’, in which the reader is not a passive consumer but rather someone who generates content, a creative subject, are stimulating to an extraordinary degree, as well as transgressive of the literary status quo. In the latter’s place other possibilities have emerged: from deviation, re-writing, the manipulation of existing texts, the remixing of digital contents, collaborative and anonymous writings. Yet after the initial enthusiasm (in which conceptual writing and electronic art both participated) come the unavoidable questions: to what extent do digital forms replicate the underlying ideology of capitalism (a self-producing domain capable of creating an infinite number of contents without waste)? A critical response to the appropriation practices that increased exponentially with the arrival of digital writing and copy and paste (and ended up being assimilated to the circuits of capital) is the concept of ‘disappropriation’, which the writer Cristina Rivera Garza has put into circulation through her book Los muertosindóciles. Necroescritura y desapropiación. As she explains, disappropriation is writing that recognizes (through its practices of production and circulation) culture as mutual possession. The text is born from the community and is given back to it without passing through the circuits of capital. What I am interested in, within this new context of textual instability, is the possibility of understanding language again as a socially shared space, a common space capable of inducing a crisis in the figure of the author (authority), in the abuses of copyright and in the capitalist obsession with property.

In sum: the creative possibilities opened up by digital writing are radical and complex. If a writer wants to sustain a critical dialogue with the present she cannot ignore them. I even suspect that in order to counteract the techno-linguistic automatisms promoted by the internet, it is very important to creatively intervene in it. I also notice that in the face of digital content proliferation, there is a renewed interest in the materiality of the word and the book. Many contemporary practices are reflecting on the relationship between writing and body, between writing and public space, and they are granting an ever greater importance to writing’s performative, embodied character.

G.M.C.: Bifo diagnoses ‘the first videolectronic generation’ in terms of psychopathologies induced by technological acceleration and its accompanying increase of sensory stimuli, which would exert such pressure on human cognitive capacities that a sort of psychotic numbness would become inevitable. His examples of the monstruous manifestation of this phenomenon are concentrated on Japan and the United States, and towards the end of his article he also points to punk, new wave and heroine as attempts at the cognitive and psychic mediation of technology’s effects. What would you say about Bifo’s analysis of contemporary forms of violence from a Mexican vantage point? Is it possible to ‘apply’ such an analysis to the forms of violence Mexico has been experiencing since 2006?

V.A.: It is difficult to extrapolate the theoretical categories that Bifo has been developing in Europe in order to understand the complexity of the present there to the reality of Latin American for a very simple reason: many of those categories cannot be applied here in the same way. In the United States and Europe the use of digital technologies is generalized. In Mexico this is not the case: there are many parts of the country that are not connected even to the electricity network, let alone the internet, computers and iPads. This is a radical difference. Violence in Mexico is, in effect, the collateral damage of turbo-capitalism; it does not come from digital numbness but rather arises straight from poverty, the dismantling of state institutions in whole areas of the country that are now ruled de facto by organized crime and transnational corporate interests. The rank and file of organized crime are agricultural workers, marginalized young people, men and women who have lost their communitarian bonds and are ready to kill in order to exit their misery.

G.M.C.: Bifo’s argument runs more or less like this: the joyous perception of one’s own body and the environment is a question of rhythm, of vital temporality. When an inorganic element (such as digital technology) is introduced and imposes an acceleration of stimuli and a contraction in the rhythms of psychic reaction, something ends up changing in the erotic behavior of the organism. Literally, ‘orgasm is replaced by a series of excitations without release’. According to Bifo, the use of narcotics such as heroine is part of a process of adaptation to this state of affairs. He says: ‘The collective organism of Western society looked for a slowing-down in the massive consumption of heroine, or else, in a complementary fashion, looked to cocaine as a way of keeping up with the pace’. Do you see an analogy between literary production on digital platforms and the ‘excitation without release’ Bifo talks about?

V.A.: In ‘The Slow Hand’, Barthes says that the whole evolution of writing (let us say, the graphic act of writing, from Egyptian Demotic script to stenography) responded to the need to write faster. Why? Because that was the rhythm imposed by commerce. The societies that wrote faster won time, that is to say, money. In order to speed up their writing, the Summerians transitioned from the pictogram to cuneiform writing. Does raising the pen make writing waste time? Let us not raise it anymore: therein lies the origin of italics. In italics it is possible to see letters run. It is also true that there is a rivalry between graphic speed and mental speed. I have said that I am a slow writer even though I no longer write by hand: I enjoy watching how the text appears on screen following the pace of my thoughts. I dream with the possibility of a stenographic writing that passes directly from my voice to the screen or even better, from my mind to the book. The speed of the computer is usually fascinating for a writer because it seems to emulate our mental speed. Galileo compared arguing to running when he defended economy and agility in reasoning. As the visionary that he was, Galileo would go pale before our perspective of real-time thought transmission. Never before had the writer had such an immediate response from her readers as she has now on Twitter. Can there be anything more addictive as immediate satisfaction? That is the internet: the ultimate drug, ‘a place where we can abandon ourselves to bodily pleasures free from our real bodies’, as Žižek once said. I am not surprised that so many intellectuals feel so seduced by the 140 characters: there is a new sensuality of the head. Nor am I surprised by the fact that among contemporary writers cocaine is the preferred drug.

Luis Eugenio Todd, a Mexican scientist, has done research on the region that is stimulated when we are connected to the internet: it is the limbic system, which is associated to satisfaction. There, every act of survival is paid with pleasure: sexual desire, thirst, hunger, fear. This is why it is extremely addictive. As with drugs, speed is a sublime pleasure: somber and beautiful and inevitably painful. And as long as the cognitariat produces its labor in that hyper-fast machine, intoxication will be a constant risk. To become aware of this and to disconnect (which I will do as soon as I finish this interview) is to take a distance that is necessary in order to open up a therapeutic space, or at least a space in which we can be critical of our own automatisms.