Four Pathways Through Chicago

What a feeling: something is possible in the USA!!!

It seems that last weekend opened up more than just a research program. It opened up the sense that we can take hold of a fabricated destiny and begin to change it. Right here in our own city and within our own experience.

The workshop last weekend is a continuation of Four Pathways through Chaos. It came out of a dialogue with Amy Partridge and other Mess Hall keyholders, who told me about their project for a year of politically oriented experimentation. Just for whoever doesn’t know, Mess Hall is a self-run cultural space with a free store and one basic rule, that no money changes hands: it’s an adventure in generosity to the extent that the space itself is rent-free, offered by the landlord with the sole obligation of somehow participating in the artistic life of the Rogers Park neighborhood. The subjects we discussed, basically a syncretic version of Marxist crisis theory, emerged from a collaboration with Armin Medosch in the framework of our Technopolitics project, which here in North America has already given rise to other seminars (EGS in Toronto, the Baltimore Free School. University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana). In a way this workshop was also linked back to experiences of the Compass Group at the US Social Forum in Detroit last summer – another moment when you could really feel something moving in the USA. But what I was mainly concerned with, going into this workshop, were questions that have been raised in collaboration with The Public School in Los Angeles, in the context of the ongoing struggles against the privatization of the public universities.

The thing is that on the level of those public universities, so much has already been lost, and so much was compromised to begin with. Despite everything that has happened in California, the revolution just ain’t comin’ from the hallowed halls, not in the US at least, not yet anyway. We have a lot to learn from what’s going on in Europe, but we’re gonnna have to do it under the conditions of North America. I’m convinced that without some pressure from the outside, no deep resistance or transformative proposals will take root in the universities, mainly for the reason that both students and professors feel their hands to be tied by debt, by administrative rules, by the competitive nature of contemporary research, publication and job-seeking, and therefore by the general governmentality of neoliberal academia. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t tens of thousands of professors and adjuncts and students and staff who are in there right now, trying to do something! So how to help them, how can they help people outside, how to create new desires, set up a new permeability, find new standpoints from which to address the economic crisis and the general decay of human equality and ecological possibility? In short, how to create and embody a transformative knowledge of this changing society, and how to put that knowledge into practice?

I talk about universities because I personally am working with critique, I’m collaborating with thinkers and artists and activists in the attempt to discover the logic of the present damaging system and to find its cracks, its contradictions, its exits and its outsides. But fundamentally this is not just a matter of universities, not at all: it’s about society, which knowledge and cultural production help to structure, and also to twist and destroy before our eyes, so sadly and unfortunately. The absence of any alternative response to the financial meltdown, then the intensification of all the previously existing trends toward the abrogation of the welfare state and the domination of finance and the war economy, these are serious issues. What we can see in the newspapers of the last two years is no substantial alternative, no contrary expertise, no countervailing philosophy to the financial technocracy that has established itself since the time of Thatcher and Reagan. Decades of work on cultural critique and subjective emancipation seem to have been effectively neutralized, despite their vast promise and their real accomplishments. This situation has to be faced, and finally, last weekend, I felt that was somehow happening at the scale of the city, in a perspective of long-term collaboration. Everyone understood and contributed to the desire to bring the critical knowledge of a complex society into the field of their own existence, and to start using it first of all on “this thing called my life,” as Jerome said with such great humor. Y’all understood and contributed because that was basically everyone’s desire. To that extent, our call was successful, the message got through because it rang true from the start.

Now that’s a small start, it’s another discussion group, some tiny club, whatever – but if it’s this thing called our lives, then it can become something important. The point is not just to form a reading group or to start an activist campaign either, though both of those things will hopefully emerge more than once from this context. The point is to intensify and clarify the activity of Mess Hall as a politically oriented cultural space addressing the current black hole in American life, which is a so-called “recovery” that generates no jobs, changes none of the toxic patterns of development that are killing us and does nothing to get the US off the warpath in Iraq, Afghanistan and in our own cities and countrysides where so many guns are loaded and ready. There are many people who are concerned about those issues, and some are already acting in their different ways. So the point is to join a larger social movement and to help give it form on the basis of local effort and experience. We need to use our brains and our hearts and our tongues, to analyze the systemic characteristics of this situation but also to grasp how other people are analyzing it, and to learn to talk with them about their strategies — since really, all the strategies are failing except the damaging ones coming down from the power elites.

I will go on providing knowledge from a long tradition of left analysis, and hopefully start some new collaborations to update that tradition on the basis of what’s emerging today, in economics, in technology, in politics, in culture, all of which are inseparable in life as it is lived today. What I am hoping is that other people will bring their ideas, their research and also their experience in society, from their social or cultural work, their activist campaigns and their professional experience too. From my viewpoint, the reasons the left has diminished and become ineffective have to do both with a loss of audacity and an inability to keep up with the times, which are damn complicated and demand our attention, beyond what’s just comfortable and immediately pleasing in the superficial way that’s promoted by a superficial society. I feel another kind of pleasure, a deep warmth from collaborating with people, a satisfaction from doing difficult work and making it mean something concrete. This weekend I felt the same things from everyone at Mess Hall, as glimmers, as desires, as full-fledged practices changing the world. This is a real beginning. Let’s go somewhere with it!

thanks Jérôme, more pics here

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