[excerpt from the response essay to the seminar with Fred Moten and Stefano Harney at EGS]
Speaking of field. I would like to share some thoughts on the idea of field. Stefano mentioned that the field is a ‘zone that is created by the exploitation of wealth’. One way to read this is that the field is that zone that is created by the intensity of exploitation of wealth. Say for example, the intensity of exploitation of wealth in the Plantations, coal mines, meat industries, house helps, etc. This mean that we can add, the field is the zone between the locations of exploitation. To this one can also add the layer of the form of institution that manages the exploitation. That is to say, estate owners and the battalion of people running the estate, industrialists and the hierarchy of labor, things, and laws regulating the industrial labor, and so on. This would mean that the field is not one, but many. This would also mean that each field has its own degrees of intensity. This would mean that each field is differently grainy or coarse (with various things and people). This would also mean that each of the fields has a history which may or may not necessarily fit as a historically emerging truth.Andaiye was right in denouncing the hierarchical structuring of institutions. However, as it came up in the seminar repeatedly, organizing other-wise is difficult, nearly criminal -and often is deemed criminal, even deadly.
Another thing about the field that came up during the seminar was what Fred said: ‘the field is something that throws out the figure, that betrays the figure…’ Fred said fleetingly, that it may be like the ground, but not exactly. It got me thinking, why not exactly? One of the things I could think of was in line with this idea of the intensity present in the idea of the field. The flow of power between various intensities. Like a model of flow of heat, from hotter to colder zones. Contrary to that the ground gets read, at least in the context of arts, as a static background, which differentiates the figure. Ground appears ahistorical. On the contrary the field appears to be dynamic and something that is currently active and historically emerging.
This got me thinking about change and betrayal. In my recent learnings I have come to understand two ways thinking about the idea of change. One way to think about change is constant and the other is punctuated. The idea of change as constant, or things constantly changing, I have learned, is rooted more in the atomistic thinking of the world. As even Marx noted in his dissertation, at the atomistic level change is seen as either rarefication or densification of atoms. That is to say that any change is nothing but a change in the intensity of coming together of moving apart of atoms from one another. However, the self-realization to move apart and come together, the freedom to come together and fall apart, is what seems to have stuck with Marx’s thinking of organization of the proletariat. The atoms and individuals have the capacity to ‘swerve’ away from the bonds of fate.
This aspect got me thinking about the term constant. Constant is something that always is. It appears in the atomistic thinking -atoms are those that are constant and those that change, and those that constantly change in their arrangements. Yet, this quality of the atom is immediately imported to human realm and particularly that associated with practice or practical life. Hence, this aspect of freely associating humans is upheld in ideas like that of friendship, particularly among Greek thinkers (it is well known, friendship in Greek societies was considered only among free-men). The question then emerges is what exactly do the freely associating humans want to change? It appears to me, like the atoms, the free humans want to escape the bonds of fate. In other words, the free humans want to organize differently from the conditions in which they find themselves thrown into or find bonded by. I am thinking of Andaiye here again.
This framework of thinking change has been effective and powerful in reminding humans that organizations and institutions are made by humans, and they should not be taken as static, fixed, or given. Everything is provisional and everything is subject to change. This is precisely what the materialist critique tells us. We can and we need to change the given arrangement of the world that we inhabit. Or as Marx writes in response to Feuerbach “the point is to change the world.” This absolutely makes sense when we see the world as rarefication and densification of atoms. As everything emerges and dissolves into atoms, so do all human creations emerge and dissolve back into the field of humans.
Perhaps this is a good moment to think about betrayal. In Andaiye’s writings we got a sense that the leader is someone who is nurtured by the people, only to be sacrificed, or betrayed by the people. The leader in turn becomes the figure who also betrays the people. Particularly from their distance from people. Here one can think of people as field. As Fred mentioned ‘the field throws up the figure’; the field denounces the figure. I was wondering if this idea of betrayal can also be used to think about institutions and organizations. The field throwing up institutions and the institutions in turn betraying the very field that produced them. One can think of state institutions, educational institutions at larger scales. One can also think of evictions of vendors in market areas, slum dwellers for fancy infrastructure and gated communities, carried out by the municipality (that was established in the first place to take care of citizens).
This also means that institutions, although humanly created, are sticky things. They sometimes stick around longer than people that threw it up. (I am thinking here of the image of Durga pooja in Kolakata, Ganesh Utsav in Mumbai where a flood of people carry gigantic idols at the end of the festival, only to immerse and dissolve them in to the tanks, ponds, lakes, rivers, oceans -only to be recreate and repeat this act the following year, and year after that and so on. I am also thinking of weddings. For some reason, I am also thinking of the Hutterites, Shakers, Quakers and Kibbutz.]
Speaking of humanly produced things, which stick around, let me share some notes on the punctuated idea of change. Once again, I am only sharing notes in the capacity of someone who is very recently smitten by the philosophical bug, and the bug of writing. I am considering this form of sharing with you as a way of a student exchanging ideas with his teachers (whatever that distinction between the student / teacher may be). In a way I am thinking of this letter also as a way to speak to both of you from the place of wonder and not from the strictures of citations, references.
Returning back to the idea of punctuated change. Here I am thinking of two thinkers: Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. One of the key differences between Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman, although both are realists, is the difference between the atomists and the thinkers of substance and things. Delanda is a realist materialist and Harman is an immaterialist. For Delanda it is the micro things that produce the meso and the meso things produce the macro things. In other words, the model of his ontology carries the strain of atomism that nonetheless considers that thing that atoms produce is not simply a sum total of the atoms arranged together -things are different than their constituent parts. In order to think about this Delanda borrows the term emergence from the 18th and 19th century chemists who observed that the emergent molecule does not have the qualities of the constituent molecules. For example, water has properties that are opposite of hydrogen and Oxygen. Delanda applies the same logic to societies. Even though societies are produced by humans, and are a necessary part of society, that does not mean that humans understand everything about society.
Harman starts his idea of emergence, agreeing with Delanda. However, he adds two more readings to it. First, Harman thinks about the idea of emergence through the idea of symbiosis -as proposed by Lynn Margulis. Evolution takes place when there is an irrevocable symbiosis established between distinct species. For example, all the constituents of the cell were once independent living things that at certain point became co-dependent to produce the Eukaryotic cells. And these cells have been around several million years on this planet and are part of several larger organisms. In that sense, evolution is seen as a punctuated event in the geo-biological history of Earth and not something that is constantlymutating or changing. The second reading that Harman offers to the reading of emergence, is to move it out of the biological framework and propose to read it as a biographical idea. In other words, not only long durée unfoldings, but one can also speak of symbiosis or symbiotic emergence in the lives of things -birth, maturing, decadence and death of things.
In this way, one can think about the idea of autonomy of organization, not only as the freedom and autonomy to self-organize, but also about the autonomy of organizations. It is more often true that organizations and institutions become the “dispositifs”, it is also true that one can undermine, critique, and change their importance and relevance. There is no denying that.
This brings me to the question of politics with relationship with individuated (betrayed) objects. In architectural discourse, several modernist architects, equally inspired by Hegel and Marx, took the notion of Tabula Rasa as a form of emancipation. The modernists saw themselves often times as emancipators, or what Walter Benjamin called the ‘destructive character’: “The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” The post-modern architects on the other hand, at least many of them, positioned themselves as the continuators and interpreters of the world given to us and the traditions and cultures that already exist in cities. In doing so many of them were also seen as conservatives. Yet, at the very moment, the discourses around post-colonialism (Which in architecture emerged as the discussion around Critical Regionalism) also upheld the very post-modernist tendencies as progressive. But what was important about many of the post-modernists was that they opened ways to engage with the world (mostly cities) as found. They were obsessed with questions like ‘how to be sensitive to the context? How can this new building contribute back to or engage with the context that it is situated in?’ among other things. They paid great attention to the kinds of buildings that came before their times in the city, the way people lived their lives in the cities, the institutions, and political conditions under which they were produced and so on. However, perhaps one of the key contributions of the post-modernist thinkers, particularly Aldo Rossi, was to convey the multivalent characteristics of architecture that can endure socio-economic conditions over a long duration of time. Curiously, for Rossi the individuality of these urban artefacts is important for several reasons. In such a case, where we can consider the endurance and individuality of the artefacts (to this we can also add things like politics, science, institutions, markets, art, philosophy, ideas, etc.) then, what kind of political and social practice does this call for -as opposed to the atomistic thinking? Should thinking of enduring entities always lead us down a conservative path?