Common Conflict

Abstracting the Commons?

Érik Bordeleau

February 1, 2016essay,

Érik Bordeleau slightly shifts the ground for the Common Conflict virtual roundtable. Seeing as the main challenge is how to envisage and feel our being-in-common, he argues that the commonist question par excellence is whether or not to abstract the commons: Does the -ism in communism or commonism elevate the commons to a higher and more enduring power, or does this universalization of particular instances of commoning hinder their capacity to affect?

The contemporary geopolitical imaginary is in flames. Amidst the multiplication of protests and uprisings in recent years around the globe, we have come to realize that the word ‘crisis’ no longer refers to a critical moment of transformation so much as it denotes our ongoing everyday situation. Worse still, it has become an explicit component of political management, informing new strategies of governance of the current global disaster. In consequence, a growing number of people are experiencing feelings of isolation and powerlessness generated by the neoliberal onslaught. As the work of Melanie Gilligan (Popular Unrest, 2010) and that of many other artists and thinkers has made abundantly clear, one of the main challenges we now face is to envisage anew our being-in-common or being-with, and the problem of collective organization that comes with it.1

For in our universal schizophrenia, we need to invent new ways of entering the milieus we inhabit. We need subtler outsides, better shared zones of opacity so the abysses over which our daytime worlds are erected can be bridged. From the depths of our precarious souls, we need to relearn the art of attuning our thoughts and actions in order to avoid their capture by the ever finer segmentation of markets. We need to reclaim the elusive and transindividual reality of our inclinations and desires, to prevent them from being algorithmically converted into the dark matter of capitalism. All in all, we need to make of ourselves the precursors of a new type of communism: a more-than-human communism based on sensible resonance, rather than a voluntarist and productivist version of it.

I’m drawing here on a few thoughts outlined in my book Comment sauver le commun du communisme? (2014) about the political and aesthetical situation of abstractions with regard to the politics of the commons.2 The French title of the essay suggests a rather unsettling ambiguity: it can either be translated as ‘how to save the common of communism?’ or ‘how to save the common from communism?’ In other words, paraphrasing Derrida’s interrogation about religion that commences Faith and Knowledge: Is communism an abstraction that saves or an abstraction to be saved from?

Or again: Is the -ism in communism elevating the commons to a higher and more enduring power, or is it instead hindering its cosmopolitical and lived vibrancy? Abstracting or not abstracting the commons, that is the question. We know all too well about how the revolutionary attempts at producing/extracting a new man out of the decadent bourgeois world have ended up proving ‘actually existing socialism’ to be an undesirable molar machine. The commonist consensus would then largely seem to be: the commons to come aren’t meant to be (universally) abstracted, they shall be situated and transversally felt.3

Two recently published books present compelling versions of a radically anti-representational conception of politics that contribute, in no small extent, to the renewal of a commonist politics for our times. Each of them insists, in its own way, on a form of fugitive and affective experience of ‘wild commons’ that are all about rhythms and resonances and that escape all forms of privative appropriation. Coming from the field of Black Studies, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) offers a passionate and poetical critique of neoliberal governance that intersects in numerous ways with To Our Friends (2014), the Invisible Committee’s last opus.4 Refusing a conception of emancipation primarily based on self-consciousness and auto-reflexivity, these two essays rather take ground in that ‘trance that’s under and around us’ to develop a politics based on the arts of immanent attention and the powers of collective improvisation. They both rely on a strong conception of the ‘call’ and attune to the idea that: ‘Organizing has never meant affiliation with the same organization. Organizing is acting in accordance to a common perception of the situation, at whatever level that may be.’5 All too briefly put, the ‘prophetic organization of the Undercommons’ that is alluded to by Harney and Moten resonates closely with the idea, formulated both by Giorgio Agamben and the Invisible Committee, that only a form of life can constitute itself as a truly destituent power.6

The ‘ongoing experiment with the informal’ and ‘the futurial presence of the forms of life’ foregrounded by both essays can read as an attempt to answer the difficult question formulated by McKenzie Wark about the Occupy Wall Street movement: How to occupy an abstraction?7 There is no easy answer to the question of how to resist the financial abstractions commanding our lives at a distance by isolating us in the restrictive form of homo oeconomicus, the privatized entrepreneur of oneself and self-promoting subject of interests. The transindividual communism I’m hinting at articulates around the capacity to affect and to be affected. It involves a strong conception of hapticality, defined as the capacity to feel through others. This ‘touch of the Undercommons’ can be declined in many different ways; they vary greatly with regard to how they conceive of the power of abstractions. Grounded in a post-Heideggerian grammar of being, the Invisible Committee’s approach, for example, is quite hostile to the language of valorization and abstraction. Writing ‘to our friends’ means for them to address those ‘who aren’t attempting to shed what they are and where they are and project themselves onto the abstract terrain of politics – that desert.’8 This territorializing gesture is, I would argue, a defining trait of recent autonomist French politics. In En finir avec le capitalisme thérapeutique, militant and social psychologist Josep Rafanell I Orra also makes a similar claim, stating that political forces always emerge from the belonging to a community and that, as such, ‘politics always surges where situated experiences are opposing themselves to the abstractions of power.’9 Conceived along these lines, communism constitutes an immediating power of therapeutic contagion that is able to recharge social bonds at an infra-individual and affective level.

In the guise of a conclusion, I would like to ask two simple yet crucial questions: What exactly does it mean to abstract oneself from a situation? And in what way does that differ (or not) from the possibility of experimenting lived abstractions (say through art)? No doubt, the Invisible Committee’s proposition to foster a destituent plane of perception could be said abstractive in its own kind, although not speculative in spirit. But there exist many other ways of conceiving, in more openly affirmative terms, the relation between life and modes of abstraction toward a post-capitalist future. I’m thinking, for example, of approaches drawing on the work of Alfred N. Whitehead, like Bruno Latour’s and Isabelle Stengers’s cosmopolitics, or the politics of affect understood as ongoing immediation of the social outlined in the work of Brian Massumi, Erin Manning and the SenseLab. But for the sake of a more direct contrast, one could refer to the work of people who have gathered around the polemical banner of (neo)accelerationism. In his short article ‘The Politics of Abstraction: Beyond the Opposition of Knowledge and Life,’ Matteo Pasquinelli develops a quite stimulating perspective on what he conceives of as a fetishization of the ‘living’ within the horizon of autonomist and antagonist politics. In connection with what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have disparagingly called ‘folk politics,’10 Pasquinelli’s revalorization of speculative abstractions runs counter to what is often invested in the reference to the commons: ‘In this sense, politics should not concern itself with trying to retrieve more body, more affection, more libido, more desire, etc., but should instead focus on developing the powers of abstraction, that is the ability to differentiate, bifurcate, and perceive things in detail, including our own feelings.’11

So let me ask once again: abstracting, or not abstracting the commons? That is no doubt the commonist question…

1. I’m referring here to the work of the existential communist philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy – among many other sources – for whom the common is what we are (in the full ontological acceptation of the verb to be) and communism, the sense of the being in common we need to think of.

2. Érik Bordeleau, Comment sauver le commun du communisme? (Montréal: Le Quartanier, 2014).

3. The slight yet strategic alteration of the word ‘communist’ into ‘commonist’ brought about by the journal Open! is most fruitful in my view. Along the same lines, to pragmatically avoid terminological misunderstandings, it is sometimes useful to translate what has traditionally been thought of in terms of ‘community’ into the Simondonian vocabulary of the transindividual. Less historically overdetermined (and overdetermining) than its counterpart, transindividuality allows to foreground the relational presentness at work in the term community.

4. For a reading of Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2014) that focuses on some of its political, aesthetic and literary stakes, see Érik Bordeleau, 'Who You Are is But a Manner of War: Enunciatory Notes on To Our Friends,' Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain (3 December 2015).

5. Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 17.

6. As a cornerstone of Agamben’s last book of the Homo sacer project, The Use of the Bodies (2016), the concept of destituent power would require a much deeper discussion. For the sake of the argument made here, I would summarize it as follows: destituent power is a political practice that calls out the contingent dimension and arbitrariness of government actions; it requires a haptic or processual mode of perception, that is, a capacity for 'perceiving a world peopled not with things but with forces, not with subjects but with powers, not with bodies but with bonds.’ (To Our Friends, 79)

7. See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons, 74; see also

8. Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 228–229.

9. Josep Rafanell i Orra, En finir avec le capitalisme thérapeutique (Paris: La découverte, 2011), 287, author’s translation.

10. There would be a lot to say about this problematic concept. I agree with Srnicek and Williams that among current radical politics endeavours, the problem of hegemonic scaling-up of struggles is mostly left unattended in favour of more localist and anti-statist concerns [a point also made by Frédéric Lordon in the conclusion of his last book, Imperium: structures et affects des corps politiques (2015)]. That being said, folk politics’ alleged emphasis on ‘temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy’ conflates way too many positions. Putting in the same horizontalist basket the self-presentation of moral purity in online (identity) politics together with the Invisible Committee’s literary war machine seems rather unproductive. They lack, at the very least, a proper concept of affect that doesn’t reduce to the ‘personal.’

11. Matteo Pasquinelli, 'The Politics of Abstraction: Beyond the Opposition of Knowledge and Life,’ Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain, 1 October 2013,

Érik Bordeleau is researcher at the SenseLab (Concordia University, Montreal). He is the author of Foucault anonymat (Le Quartanier, 2012, Spirale Eva-Legrand 2013 award) and of Comment sauver le commun du communisme? (Le Quartanier, 2014). He is interested in the current speculative turn in contemporary continental thought and has recently published ‘Bruno Latour and the Miraculous Present of Enunciation’ in the book Breaking the Spell: Contemporary Realism Under Discussion (Anna Longo and Sarah de Sanctis (eds.), Mimesis, 2015).

Commonist Aesthetics
Who You Are Is but a Manner of War

Erik Bordeleau characterizes the political collective the Invisible Committee as a revolutionary and literary force entangled within a complex field of power relations. He asserts that the collective configures a politics of enunciation that oscillates between anonymity and extreme personalization. This essay is part of the research theme Commonist Aesthetics.

Common Conflict
Common Conflict
‘Hot Winter Press’ zines at We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning at Casco by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido (Jazael Olguinzapata), 2015. – Photo: Sven Lütticken

From its inception, Open! and Casco’s series Commonist Aesthetics was meant neither as a celebration nor as a debunking exercise, but as a critical inquiry. The commons certainly is not lacking in those who hype the cause, nor in vehement detractors. For the Invisible Committee, an example, ‘commonism’ is identified with Ostromite liberal managerialism:

Governing the Commons is the title of the recent bestseller by Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, who has defined eight principles for ‘managing the commons.’ Understanding there is a place for them in an ‘administration of the commons’ that remains to be invented, [Antonio] Negri and associates have embraced this theory, which is perfectly liberal at its core…

…[They] are inclined to make the ‘commons’ into the latest metaphysical principle to come out of the West’s magical hat. An arche, they say, in the sense of that which ‘organizes, commands, and rules all political activity,’ a new ‘beginning’ that will give birth to new institutions and a new world government.1

And is the excitement in some art world circles (however marginal they may be) for forms of commoning, or at least the rhetoric of commoning, not deeply suspicious? In her essay for Commonist Aesthetics, Marina Vishmidt suggested that a ‘structural and ideological affinity already holds between “commonist” politics and the field of art practices’; both, she argues, ‘are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, often interstices and spare capacities, “making do” as in the “sharing economy.”’ Making changes in the here and now sounds good when the alternative is waiting for a phantasmagorical revolution. But is the exclusive privileging of ‘making do’ under current conditions not equally problematical – especially if connected to the hope that enough cute grass-rootsy commonizing activity will attain such critical mass that capitalism will, after all, disappear or morph beyond recognition? Vishmidt states in the aforementioned text: ‘The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006) to several of a number of cultural scenes of inquiry into “the commons” would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilisation.’

Nonetheless, we would not have pursued Commonist Aesthetics if we agreed that commons discourse is completely bankrupt and utterly irredeemable. In a passage recently evoked by Katharine Gibson during a lecture at Casco, Massimo de Angelis acknowledges that commoning is often instrumentalized not in order ‘to provide alternatives to capital, but to make a particular node of capital – a region or a city – more competitive, while somehow addressing the problems of reproduction at the same time.’ However, he maintains that ‘in spite of capital’s strategies to use a commons fix to the problems it creates while never really solving them, commons may well be part of a different historical development.’2

This ‘may well be’ continues to hover over the debate, a debate that we wish to develop and intensify with this ‘virtual roundtable’ titled Common Conflict, mirrored by a public forum at Casco on 12 March. Later this year, the whole Commonist Aesthetics project will be rounded off by a book publication.

For Common Conflict, we have confronted a number of authors with a series of questions, some or many of which may be leading questions. The authors were free to pick and choose, or ignore, as they saw fit; to rephrase and reroute a line of questioning; and to examine their own as well as others’ practices and theoretical presuppositions.

Is the notion of the commons subject to an ontological essentialization? Is dehistoricization tantamount to depoliticization?

The resurgence of the commons is clearly linked to the decline of the public sector, at least in Europe. Is commonism tacitly complicit with the ever further dismantling of the state and the public? Does the state need to be reclaimed?

Does the commonist discourse have a potential depoliticizing effect, being compatible with hazy visions of the ‘sharing economy’ and an Ostrom-style governance? What are the consequences of the division between ‘Ostromites’ interested in governing the commons and autonomists eager to prefigure a coming insurrection or a coming community?

How does, or should, commonist self-organization around specific issues relate to more general antagonisms and struggles? Is commonism in need of a wider autonomist horizon and bona-fide leftist strategy – or are ‘actually existing’ commonist tactics, however compromised, a daily reminder of the bankruptcy of more fundamental, more rigorous, more dialectically canny leftist positions?

What is the relation between theories of the commons / commoning and specific practices? Does the theory lag behind the most cogent practices? Is it often a substitute for actual commoning practices at specific sites for struggles? Can problematic, partial or blocked attempts at commoning be as valid as seemingly successful and exemplary endeavours?

Is the commons’ rhetorical success in parts of the art world indicative of an aestheticization of the social – with aestheticization here being used in its negative Benjaminian sense? Does the all too familiar critique of art institutions need to be followed by an active commoning of institutions? How to proceed with this?

Does the art world focus overly on low-tech forms of commons and commoning, unduly neglecting the digital commons? How can and should online and offline impact each other?

Do we see the beginnings of a commonist aesthetic practice in a more fundamental sense, involving forms of sensuous activity that challenge and go beyond established notions of art and existing institutional forms? Does aesthetic practice allow us to refocus all of the above questions?