small space dynamics
Ive never taken any time to actually measure my space. I suppose theres enough space for what I do, and thats always been the case whatever Ive been doing. I suppose everybody has enough space for whatever they do, and so theres no need to actually measure any spaces. Unless of course you wish to define your activity as actually measuring spaces. Though I dont think that Ive actually met anybody who does that. Some people devote their time to studying the flora and fauna within their space, some even cultivating or experimenting or whatever - and I suppose that would necessitate taking into account the dimensions of ones area. But needless to say my area is sufficient for my needs. I have warmth (it never seems to be cold) and food is brought to me. But I have my mission that in effect keeps me warm and well fed if you would pardon my poetic license.
We all have our interests, which in effect define the small space we exist in. Contact remains minimal. Of course we are bounded on four sides by four other similarly sized spaces occupied by other individuals and their interests. From what I can gather there is a huge network, a grid if you will, of similar sized squares. But we are encouraged not to think of such things. However, there is movement. If I succeed sufficiently in the task that I have defined myself within my small space then I can move to another small space. Movement is always to the North or to the East. I have contact with those on my northern and eastern sides (more on that later) and there is always a new North and East to be found when I move North or East. In fact theres the whole grid. Its out there but as I said were not supposed to think about it. Its not that we cant see further than our adjoining squares, its just that we are not encouraged to do so. So you erect a kind of darkness. Its hard to describe.
So what about contact and communication? As I said, we are always looking to move either North or East. When we move Im not sure what happens to our neighbours who previously occupied our North or East squares. Its rare that we move together such that as I move (say) North, then so does my neighbour, and we are both still in contact but involved in progressively advanced tasks. Normally you move North or East and the previous occupant disappears from the grid. Sometimes they move West or South. But very rarely. If you are moved West or South then its like being demoted. Of course if you are demoted as you neighbour is moved upwards then you still remain neighbours but the positions are reversed. And this affects your contact (which I can begin to explain now). I am encouraged to correspond with those to my North and East. to learn things to help me overcome the tasks set out in my small space. At certain intervals I wait at either boundary and try to grab their attention. Of course, its up to them if they want to talk to me. Thus I often engage in dialogue with those to my West and South (but only if I feel like it) - and this dialogue is of the form that I just answer questions. Of course some casual chat seeps in. Well it does with me, I cant help it. It does depend on my neighbours at the time though. Correspondence isnt permitted across the corners, so the people to my NW, SW, SE, or NE are out of bounds. Ive never understood this, particularly as I would have thought that communication with my NorthEasterly neighbour would have been valuable. But thats not deemed to be the case. Of course we break rules and if I wait at my NE corner and if my North and East neighbours meet me (at their SE and NW corners respectively) then we can get a roundabout dialogue going with the person occupying NE (so long as they are at their SW corner). I hope its not too complicated. Youd be surprised but such dialogue does go on. There always seems to be someone in a crisis and we do our best to help out. But maybe were really after their spaces? Of course, if I am lucky enough to move North (or East) then my out of bounds NE neighbour becomes accessible as it now forms my East (or North) neighbour.
So thats communication, and I suppose Ive also covered movement in there. What I havent mentioned is the postman. He brings me the intellectual supplies each day to pursue my particular task, and he takes away my letters and articles as part of the same process. Occasionally he brings a blue letter, thats from management. It says if Im to be moved North or East, and if things go wrong South or West.
Im pretty good at what I do, and I havent been sent back yet. Currently Im enjoying what I do (though I know that will change - that is my enjoyment of it will soon change, not the task itself as that NEVER changes). My role is to absorb material from the political milieu and to write letters criticising or congratulating or developing or whatever. Just corresponding really. I gather that success is judged by my ability to influence certain publications by provoking certain responses either as communication to me or, even better, as fuel for future articles in the actual magazines themselves. That hasnt happened yet, but Im pretty sure that it will soon. Im pretty sure...
The postman brings me just one magazine today, but it is a good one. A crisp new copy of Subversion, which always guarantees plenty of conflicting views and editorial opinion. Theres normally at least one thing in each issue that makes me pick up a pen and write some kind of comments. I scan through the magazine and the first few articles contribute towards what is becoming a very polarised set of opinions around attitudes to the resistance of the implementation of the Job Seekers Allowance. Its always the same: a glut of printwork with the same old arguments being shouted from the same old frozen poles that incredibly manage to remain in the capture or in the thrall of leftism. I love it, it defines my space. The articles seem determined to mark Out progress through bringing together partial attempts at generalisation in the form of correspondence. to articles and other correspondence. For now, my own isnt included. What becomes problematic is that the generalisation hinted at is in fact (in my opinion, which defines my space) still a partiality - this problem of leftism - while the apparent partial divisions are only hardened due to the inability and refusal to move free from leftism (or an anti-leftism that remains FASCINATED by leftism). Oh well, at least Subversion is still worth reading as it offers some clues to a better praxis even if by showing (at times) the complete limitations of this or that approach. A case in point is this continuation of reportage on the dynamics of the struggle against the JSA. I feel I should add my comments but I stall as I put pen to paper: dynamics? is that a valid term? perhaps that is being over kind as the articles continue the obsession with and unique importance placed upon the consciousness and the activity of the militant and the movement and the projection of the consciousness onto the envisaged pre-programmed behaviour of the worker. Thus I am confronted with an article that attacks a previous attempt to question the value of dogmatically linking up with an assumed dogmatically behaving lump of dole workers, but attacks this by relegating the argument as between the two most (presently) advanced crustifications in the revolutionary milieu - that is between workerism and reactionary primitivism (the current expression of "pious moral liberalism"). So it begins with a necessary sketch of the "descent" into primitivism and automatically tries to link the article it attacks with such a pole in the milieu (and also assumes that the hallowed battle of ideas can only exist within this mythical milieu when the real battle is to get out of it). Similarly in one fell swoop the concept of examining the psychological and sociological effects on self and others of various jobs is relegated to the Primitivists Networks tendency of assuming all and sundry (meat eaters, dole dependents, etc etc) as the villains of the piece by perpetuating the system.
I make some notes on workerism as a start towards my contribution to the debate: If we consider workerism as the effective marrying of an economic fetishism on top of an attitude that the majority of the working class are sheep then we can see where the problem stems from. Thus there isnt much distance between the workerism of the Trotskyists trade union consciousness and the supposed anti-workerism in this article that still assumes that people are unaffected by the work they do and how this work affects others. Continuing from this is it any wonder that the leftist bunker has any interest or analysis in culture and the alleviation and mediation of our need to reconcile our denied creative expressions etc etc...
I stop there and wonder at what I have written. My thoughts return to the hardline anti-leftism that such magazines express so strongly, but the fact remains that all these magazines remain deadened in the thrall of leftism, Its a feeling I have been fostering for some time, but only now has it come to the surface. I finish the letter to Subversion and post it in a draft form. The magazine is filed in a box folder with the other 22 issues of Subversion and the various discussion papers I have received during my correspondence with them, The box is getting full as it also houses other UK left communist magazines and discussion papers from such as Aufheben, Wildcat, Radical Chains,
the postman delivers only a blue letter today. Maybe I am being moved? I open it and Im shocked to see a brief note expressing disappointment at not only my lack of development but the beginnings of what they term an undesirable attitude fitting my small space and the immediate small spaces around me. Somehow I dont feel too worried. Perhaps I should, Im sure I should.
I glance around at my neighbours and see if I can seek any advice. My Northern neighbour, as far as I can work out (as it is forbidden for them to tell), has a task of editing a political zine. This involves actually writing articles. I am pretty sure that the magazine isnt part of any particular group and that the occupant of the space fulfils a particular task to me except that they produce their own articles in response to their digesting of political print, and I simply resort to writing letters. The funny thing is that I have probably received and commented on the very magazine that is being prepared in the space to my North. Of course I would not receive it from my Northern neighbour but via the postal system. The same goes for him receiving my replies.
My Eastern neighbour also seems to work on a zine, but from what I gather this project seems to be more concerned with art. Kind of a reclaimed expression of self-creativity (or that is what he tells me). Anyway, he seems to be constantly divided between writing and cutting up bits of coloured papers. It looks kind of interesting (as an activity I mean), but I suppose I must be concentrating on my own task if I am to receive progression to either of the spaces to my North or East.
To my South is a lonely fellow who just concerns himself with reading and filing away the political magazines (he receives a duplicate delivery to me). To my West is someone who spends all their time poring over an undisclosed collection of photos. He has never revealed the nature of the photos, but is constantly devising new indexes and methods of cross-referencing, and constantly rearranging the actual layout of the photographs.
I have this theory that I suppose Im not supposed to have formulated. It goes like this: Movement in a latitudinal fashion somehow corresponds to quantum leaps in the ability to perform certain political disciplines, whilst movement in a longitudinal fashion equates to quantum leaps in cultural disciplining.
Thus (again Im not supposed to know this) the square two spaces to my North is occupied by someone who edits a political magazine that is affiliated to an organisation, and the square above that has something to do with actually co-ordinating an organisation itself. Beyond that I dont know. The square two places to my East is occupied by someone who spends most of their time mixing records, and (from what I can hear when the wind blows in the right direction) most of the squares to my East (at this level) are concerned with noise based disciplines.
I havent mentioned NorthEast yet have I? Well, by the laws that govern this network of small spaces I suppose Im not allowed to, but, as I havent received a blue letter from management saying that I am no longer closing in on a position in breech of my existence here then I can only assume that I am still deviating from the fixed conditions that define me here, so what the hell...
NorthEast is, from what I can gather, a new age road protester. You know the kind, you see them on television and in the papers, in fact theyre nearly almost celebrities. Digging tunnels under proposed construction sites, nailing their ears to old tree trunks, suspending themselves precariously from trees... NorthEast, it appears is having some difficulties. I cant actually see him, but Im in my NorthEast corner and Im in conference with both North and East, and they are in conference with NorthEast, so theres dialogue of a sort.
It appears hes digging in. Good practice I assume for the coming struggles? No, Im informed. Hes digging in against the impending threat of representation. Im passed an issue of a magazine called Do Or Die (number 7) - very nicely printed and all that. I remember it being delivered to me and passing some brief criticisms on the editorial wavering over the politics of the increasingly right wing Green Anarchist. Just the usual stuff really.
I suggest hes at a crossroads in his struggle. This part joke doesnt go down too well. Sense of humour isnt tolerated in the network. His problem seems to be with the publishing of yet another book purporting to be a rough guide to direct action and DIY culture. The book seems to trade on a them and us scenario, and NorthEast sees this as being between the direct activists and the liberal intellectuals engaged in their reformist struggles. He argues that the book attempts to drag liberals and their management schooled views into the movement and also to drag genuine activists towards the mainstream media and their institutions. Consequently this neuters all the effects.
I try to argue that perhaps theres another dimension to all of this, a dimension in which representation is a crucial factor. That of ENTERTAINMENT. In fact both the book and direct action itself are pieces of entertainment, the book being mediated into the print form for liberals to experience. I am told by both North and East that NorthEast doesnt agree. Direct action isnt entertainment he argues. But I suggest that the whole concept of DIY versus mainstream is represented through their agenda... what constructs the mainstream? what participation is involved? what constructs direct action and DIY? whats participation here? Im having difficulties getting my views across. Damn this management letter Ive had... its making me question my whole analytical framework, and Im stumbling around a bit. Plus the fact that I cant speak to NorthEast directly and my questions and ideas are mediated by either North or East.
I point out NorthEasts definition of liberalism: "the political ideology of the bourgeoisie - it is the set of ideas, the theoretical framework, that goes hand in hand with capitalist social relations - liberals see society as being an aggregate of fundamentally separate and atomised individuals liberals are fundamentally blind to the existence of social classes". I suggest that this is fine when used against the likes of DEMOS (who contribute to the book under review) but it is equally applicable to Green Anarchist and certain political lumps of the DIY movement... They see the working class as ignorant and unable to make choices about trying to break free from the constraints that trap one into a life of complicity with the system. In fact most of those involved in the DIY movement are privileged from the class position, being liberals themselves and choosing to invest their liberalism in an exciting lifestyle. Most working class people dont have the opportunity to make a choice, life starts and ends in a rut... This pseudo transcending of culture, somehow represented as an upwards dynamic from mainstream to DIY, is surely a class privilege. It isnt that working class people choose a shit education system, or shit aspects of popular culture, or shit diets, or shit whatever, they dont have a choice.
I dont seem to be having much luck with this dialogue, and I dont want to get drawn into some political confrontation with North, who, being the good servant that he is, is always up for some theoretical headbanging. Instead I take up conversation with East and talk about cultural dynamics. Its something hes interested in but admits that hes having difficulty in making something useful from it all. We joke about the latest car advertisement that features a through the car window viewing trip of recent DIY cultures, ironically the car drifts along through what is possibly modelled on a reclaim the streets style carnival. Our discussion turns to television and East remarks that the idea of Orwells 1984 style television surveillance system is already up and running: its not that we are being watched but that as long as we are watching television then we are being kept hypnotised such that theres no need to actually watch us. East seems keen on this thesis and is using it as a central tenet in the next issue of his cultural magazine. I wish him luck and retreat back into my square, pretending to be interested in shuffling through my immense library of fringe political and cultural paraphernalia.
I thought that my conversations with North and East might find favour with the management. No such luck. The postman only brings a new publication: "Reflections on Marxs Critique of Political Economy" by Collectivities. Normally I would be excited by such a delivery. I have encountered the work of this left communist group in the past, particularly their long and tortuous dialogue with the Leninists of the CWO. But I just cant get up the enthusiasm to read the text, let alone comment on it.
Another letter from management. More bad news. Im to be moved. Im sure it isnt North or East, so it must be back. Both North and East are no longer talking to me. Theyve possibly been tipped off by management. And Im not receiving any journals or magazines at all now. I know because I can see that both North and South have been getting political magazines with the usual regularity. Shit, even South isnt interested in me anymore. Just waiting I suppose...
One day I decide to have a fire, to burn my library. Maybe I could make something happen. I clear two spaces in the earth, one to build a fire with all the reams of printed political papers, and a second to record the time lines of each series of publications that I add to the fire. I begin to empty the boxes into the circle of stones I have created around the first piece of cleared earth. It doesnt take long to get a fire going, and as I add more boxes it seems to eat up the paper voraciously. I put the finishing touches to my recording marks in the earth:
Here and Now! /18 issues / 1985 -
Insurrection / 7 issues / 1982 - 1989
Workers Playtime /? issues / 1982 - 1984
Intercom / 6 issues / 1983 - 1984
A Communist Effort / 4 issues / 1984
Wildcat! 18 issues / 1984 -
Communism / 10 issues / 1983 -?
Organise / 48 issues / 1984 -
Subversion / 23 issues / 1988 -
Flux / 7 issues / 1990 - 1994
Radical Chains / 4 issues / 1989 - 1993
London Notes / 1 issue / 1992
Aufheben / 6 issues / 1992 -?
At this point I give up, laced with the prospect of marking in various smaller publications and inter-group discussion documents. Anyway, my fire is creating a ball of light that seems to light up the whole network. I stand on my tiptoes and strain to see the ends of the network. Not possible. But there are so many squares all with different activities going on.
Theres people sat watching tv, people sitting in the hull of an empty bus as if they are commuting, people in bed, people engaged in all sorts of hobbies and strange occupations. I decide to see as far North as possible. Of course North isnt watching, neither is NorthNorth (or 2N for convenience). 3N is busy making frantic notes, possibly for his organisation. and 4N, 5N and 6N all seem to be involved in some writing process. I strain to see 7N - all I can make out is a figure slumped at a desk.
My fire dies down and eventually the (lack of) visibility returns to normal. I fall asleep excited.
I dont even wait for the postman to come. I get up and start walking. Right through the boundary between my space and Norths, right through the boundary between his space and 2Ns, and onwards until I reach 7N (though it feels like Ive crossed about 50 squares occupied by figures engaged in writing, posting, and other administrative duties). Anyway, I reach this figure slumped at a desk who looks pretty much like the person I saw through the flames of my fire. I try to speak to him but he fails to find any words in reply. Its not as if he doesnt want to, he simply cant. He keeps returning his gaze to his desk, scattered with various papers. I pick one up and he flinches.
It is entitled "Psychedelic Bordiguism: Invariance and Fictive Capital". Some of the words bring a hint of recognition: a translation from an extremely extrapolated branch of French ultra-leftism. I have met some of this stuff before, but found it too difficult to understand. Most of the political milieu regarded it with the same attitude, however there remained a minute fascination with these intangible works (I must confess that I fell prey to this). I check the date of the article - 1977 - I smile as I realise that punk was just kicking in then, but punk business entrepreneurs chose to back situationism rather than this highly coded marxism. There are some key concepts in the document that are hard to grasp: fictive capital, illusary representations of value, anthropomorphised capital... the translation originates from a document by Guerre Sociale. I ask 7N what became of them, and he starts to stammer, producing still no words but instead a staccato version of his continuous moan.
I check the other documents on his desk. Issues of Invariance, La Banquise, Le Brise-Glace, all partly translated. He seems to be working on a new document: "Muscularity, Brutality, Frailty". I check down to see what its about. It seems to concern the relationship between theory and practice, and how one arises in the presence (or lack) of the other. There are sections on practical inactivity - which he classes as mainstream mediated culture and hobbies etc - and impractical activity - which is basically political careerism under leftism. The bulk of the document concerns the development of theory, and sketches out the intense currents developed through groups such as Invariance. There are some notes towards an argument: "we take a practice in understanding the reasons for theory > > we extrapolate ourselves out of the impasse > > what practical / social conditions exist for such abstracted theory to develop"...
I ask him about the title. He explains: The muscularity represents the extremities of theorising developed by groups around the French ultra-left, the brutality represents the self-hatred that emerges in groups such as the SI and their adherents, and the frailty represents the ease with which certain elements who had respect in the ultra-left milieu managed to easily and quickly find favour with extreme currents such as revisionism...
He pauses here and puts his head back in his hands, slumped forward at his desk. I examine him and notice a build up of dust on his desk and papers, only disturbed by his brief and reluctant conversation with me. He now rests motionless, contemplating the impossibility of the task in front of him. It then strikes me to see who is surrounding him. To his South sits a figure pretty much the same as 7N, slumped at a desk: all that discerns him from 7N is his sporadic making of notes. 7N has erected a wall to his West so there is no view, to his North there is - well - a mist that I cant see through. I move towards it and 7N leaps up from his desk and pleads with me to go no further, pulling at my shirt: "No-one is able to pass through there, no-one!"
I look East and see a square occupied by a large, rounded gritstone boulder. The earth around the bottom circumference is well worn, and the rock faces of the boulder itself are well brushed, cleaned, and dabbed with chalk patches. I walk across and try to figure out whats going on. On the Eastern side of the boulder, initially out of sight, a figure is stretching and flexing on a foam camping mat. He is dressed in loose clothes, climbing slippers, and large chalk bag. His physique seems to be specific to his task, no fat whatsoever and muscle only where need, in the forearms, shoulders, back and chest. He seems keen to speak to me:
"Have you come to try my new problem, its the hardest in the country, Im pretty sure..."
He lies down under the boulder and slowly places a hand, a toe, his other hand, and finally his other toe, on the boulder. I look at him. He is in an almost horizontal position and appears to be totally at rest, however, on a closer look it is obvious that many muscles are stretched and locked at breaking point - holding onto the rock and positioning the various centres of gravity of the limbs and torso in a balanced position. I look at his points of contact: his right hand is a single finger pocket with his middle digit pushed into the rock up to the first joint, his left hand is a well chalked smear on a flat piece of rock, fingers splayed out onto a minimum friction, his right and left feet are on tiny lips on the rock face, barely large enough to notice. His body tenses and the muscles in his back and shoulders suddenly become exaggerated - he holds for a moment and then powers upwards with his left hand, both his feet leaving their small footholds. His left hand stretches out and the thumb and forefinger pinch around a small pebble, he connects and hold, suddenly bringing up his right foot and pushing it against the rough rock. It provides a moments friction, enough time to let go of the finger pocket with his right hand and pull through on the pebble, the right hand now taking a turn to lead through and reach a high spot. It grasps blindly at the lip of the boulder and finds a tiny patch of friction - within seconds the climber has flipped himself onto the top of the boulder. He sits triumphantly, crossed legged, arms outstretched as if cooling the muscles: "Fancy a try?"
I know it is way beyond my capabilities. I dont have the time, discipline, or inclination to begin to even test out my body towards its suitability to such a task. Besides, I am convinced that even if I had the time, discipline or inclination to train towards such a goal then I could never do things such as grasp and hold a small pebble. It just isnt in me. I could never do it.
I look over at 7N, he hasnt moved. Then I realise the connection. About what can be grasped by who. About the frustration of reaching an absolute limit for even the special ones. About doubting the limit because sometimes it can appear oh so close. About loneliness.
I walk down towards my square, taking in a few other squares, moving East and West as the interest takes me. Quite soon I become disorientated, not sure if Ive come too far South or whether I should head East or West. I keep walking, not even sure if Ive actually still got a square...
Originally appeared in Autotoxicity #4. Reprinted in Communist Headache, second series #1 ,and in alt-ctrl-delete #1