GRASSROOTS MODERNISM AS AUTONOMOUS ETHOS AND PRACTICE
By Meg Wade
We live in a moment where there is a feeling of something happening. We dread some of these happenings, those that seem to reveal only an expansion of state and corporate powers, or ecological destruction. Yet even in our dread we somehow sense people beginning to do things differently. Still, we are uneasy at taking hope in these small actions around us; they do not seem large enough to solve the vast problems described by our grand analyses. Nor do they seem new enough, looking very much like the practices that humans have always engaged in throughout the ages.
Why is it that bicycle coops and backyard homesteads give so many of us hope? And why are we so quickly cynical about this hope? We say, “these Do-It-Yourself practices, the move again to self care and appropriate technologies, these are tiny drops against the tides of global capitalism.” And this is true; the scale feels inappropriate. But if what we need is in fact a change in the scale of our focus – a refusal to expand ourselves to the global reach and pace at which the persisting systems of exploitation encourage us to operate – what then? We have seen the attempt of social movements to function institutionally for the long-term at that global scale, at ever-accelerating speeds, and the result is the nonprofit industrial complex, itself complicit in expanding enterprise's reach. Alternatively, the collection of DIY practices returns us to a scale of action at which human freedom can flourish.
Can such a scaling down be politically effective? Is it strategic? It may seem a defeatist course of action to those of us who are or have been dedicated to movement building as traditionally conceived. But such a viewpoint misunderstands the problem, which is not about mobilization but about a renewal of souls that are crushed, defeated.
The problem is the need for a mutually reinforcing way of looking at and interacting with the world that once again grows the spirit's desire for autonomous action. This current DIY renaissance, as one manifestation of grassroots modernism, provides us with this: an autonomous ethos and practice.
“Modernity,” Michel Foucault suggested, can be understood as a voluntary ethos: “a type of philosophical interrogation,” “one that simultaneously problematizes man's relation to the present, man's historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject.” It is the “reactivation” of this attitude of critique, “of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era,” that connects us to the Enlightenment, rather than any set of given beliefs.
This ethos, for Foucault, is characterized by a form of criticism “seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.” It is a criticism no longer concerned with “formal structures with universal value,” but rather with those contingent, practical systems and technologies that determine ourselves as subjects. Its concern is “the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of autonomy.”
“What is at stake,” Foucault states, “is this: how can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?”
One outcome of modernity, of a moment of growth of capabilities, only intensified power relations. The search for individual self-realization, a hallmark of much 1960s radicalism, became reduced to self-realization through financially secure positions, whether in non-profit sector jobs, the increasingly lucrative traditional professions, or other for-profit work. Such individuals are capable of very much: they move supplies from one continent to another; they organize millions of volunteer hours. Yet their self practice did not contain a critique towards the technological changes in daily life that appeared during the transition from traditional industrialism. A focus on reliable modes of individual self-expression has locked them into the accelerating logic of a debt and state-based society, unable to act as either independent individuals or as independent communities.
We seek now a revived modernism whose criticism allows for this growth of capabilities (of individuals, and of the communities they constitute), but also gradually splits it away from the disciplinary mechanisms of government and market alike.
Yet we know also where many Enlightenment projects failed: the world will not be governed by reason. With this knowledge there becomes something decidedly early modern about grassroots modernism. Perhaps it is a return to the experimental mode of early modern natural philosophy, to science as garage experiment rather than as a universalizing, dominating, state-corporate partnership. It is an ethos that returns to an anti-authoritarian, localized epistemology, one not easily deferent to experts, whether scientific, moral, or political. Yet just as it moves away from philosophy and science as authoritative and certain projects, it fulfills the goals of those who hoped it could be such. Grassroots modernism is the possibility of a genuine praxis creating a new means for a 'way out,' 'an exit,' from our state of submission, as Kant once characterized the concept of enlightenment. In its localized, contingent manifestations, it sees the limit of our own reason while encouraging its autonomous use.
This is grassroots not merely in some sense of being of 'the people,' but in its philosophical stance. It claims the legitimacy of knowledge away from experts, especially those embedded in classic liberal institutions. Modernism, careening away from dogmatic religion, once led us into dogmatic scientism, quests for certainty, and the valorization of expertise, all coping mechanisms for the factual and moral ambiguity that is a clear given of existence. Grassroots modernism acknowledges the failure of such quests, and reaffirms the pursuit of partial, local knowledges as essential to autonomous ethos and critique.
It is difficult to see DIY as a relevant solution if the question is solely economic, or only a question of mobilization, of temporarily moving bodies into positions of perceived political effectiveness: numbers at a march, signatures on a sheet.
But if the question is one of developing a shared ethos or attitude, of a critique towards technologies that dominate and determine us, then we can understand why many of us find ourselves turning towards DIY in this current moment.
One sees the potential connections between an autonomous ethos and DIY captured in books like
Chris Carlsson's 2008 Nowtopia, which describes an emerging “autonomous technoculture”: individuals, communities, and networks of bicycle mechanics, community gardeners, and alternative energy gurus, all crafting forms of self-organized knowledge and self-reliance. Carlsson stresses that the critical characteristic of these DIY community members is their tinkering, how they work out problems themselves, resourcing and repurposing items for new and unexpected uses. They challenge not only the consumer paradigm, but its undiscussed, underlying epistemological framework: that corporate engineers and marketers are better qualified to determine the technologies used in daily life; that, in general, we are only to consume components of the vast technological network that shapes our survival, work, and leisure, rather than producing and adapting localized technologies ourselves.
The current formation of DIY, like many past movements towards self-production, takes pieces of a philosophical critique and welds them into everyday practices of resistance against the pervasive disciplinary techniques to which we are subject.
As a Challenge to Semiocapitalism
We are realizing the ways in which these disciplinary techniques have changed. The juridical and disciplinary apparatuses once described by Foucault continue, but new forms of domination by the state and capital have arisen. It is these new mechanisms and techniques that some, such as Franco Berardi, strive to capture with the name "semiocapitalism,” to emphasize how the sphere of production has "become tightly interwoven with language," its focus now one of "the creation and commodification of technolinguistic devices," from financial products to the internet itself.
In semiocapitalism, we see workers forced into situations of both incredible precarity and complete availability. Its new technologies are akin to the mechanization of factory work during industrialism, but more effective: “cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it,” helping lead to precarity as the norm: “workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular.”
Yet we have seen precious little resistance to this aggravated exploitation – why is this? The current linguistic nature of production, Franco Berardi has suggested, captures the desire of workers, resulting in an ever greater investment of intellectual and emotional energies into those enterprises responsible for their own exploitation.
This is more than the colonization of desire via the profusion of advertising into ever more aspects of life, more than the creation of an endless consumer wanting for purchasable products or experiences. Rather, simultaneous with the growth of the class of creative and info workers, we see an alignment of desire with the very process of one's exploitation. One wants to make ads, manipulate data, or design plans, at ever more hours of the day, at ever faster speeds. We experience anxiety if the fit between our 'self' and occupation seems misaligned, and further anxiety when we are cut off from the tools that connect our occupational life and the information streams of capital.
The integration of these techno-linguistic tools into daily life represent an important shift. It is not the body in the factory that receives discipline, but the mind and spirit; domination is “logical and psychological... Not the body but the soul becomes the subject of techno-social domination.”
DIY: Providing Time and Material Means for Autonomous Desire
So the political question becomes psychological: “The obsessive nuclei stratified in the social imagination produce pathologies: panic, depression and attention deficit disorders. These clots need to be dissolved, avoided, deterritorialized.”
Such dissolution, resulting in “a shift in the social investments of desire,” is made possible by an intentional slowing down of work combined with a critique of these “techno-linguistic automatisms” that dominate the soul and accelerate labor. This shift, this slowing down, is why DIY is important.
For many, DIY practices carve out room in their lives where different logics of time and production operate. The instantaneous delivery of goods and entertainment is not the point here; one must wait weeks for the bacteria in a batch of sauerkraut to do their work. Such slowness begins to reduce the anxious rush induced by semiocapitalism's constant onslaught of signs and demands.
It also offers a removal to spaces where such signs are rearranged, and less dense: the workshop, the garden. In these spaces, one steps back from the voluntary and involuntary inundation of media, from the demands of phones and email. We experience our own ability to play with and change tools, rather than existing only as a gadget or node in a network ourselves. And we experience a shift in the material world that surrounds us. The homes of DIY participants become filled, not solely with objects to be consumed, but with tools for production. This, too, effects future desires and possibilities for action.
The reconnection to physical labor that fills a need, in contrast with mental labor that provides only currency, can also begin to erode the logic of economic dependency on the current system of employment, and to break our sense of identity with it.
Both Berardi and Carlsson are concerned with the class of creative and information workers who heavily identify with their employment. But those Carlsson describes have begun to shift away from prior trajectories in which career acted as the locus of their desire. Instead, their role in the DIY community becomes both their place of passion and a means for lessening their future dependence on jobs for survival.
Carlsson's bicycle coop volunteers may work as programmers and production assistants, but now, their volunteer experiences begin to shape their understandings and imaginings of themselves. Their job's grip upon their consciousness loosens, and employment is seen for what it is: a means for obtaining goods in the current economic situation, rather than the source of self-definition and desire it has come to represent.
The Potential for Cooptation
I concede many of the criticisms lodged against DIY culture. These often focus on the fragmented and partial nature of its activities, or its current dependence on the usual unsustainable flow of goods and money. This is true. There is much work to be done to build the relationships that will connect the often isolated individuals and communities engaged in autonomous activities if they are to be true alternative systems, and to truly relocalize much of production.
Still, the new DIY has, and will have, economic consequences, as does any movement providing us opportunities to learn to depend on ourselves. Even the simple revival of repairing objects, rather than consuming new ones, strengthens our relationship with ourselves and others, and weakens our dependency on corporations.
The greater risk is not lack of economic consequence, but that the ethos presently embedded in these practices may be undermined by the transformation of its greatest symbols into fetishized art objects. DIY may become yet another form of self-expression, a show of preferences: the bicycle only an emblem worn on patches, or pressed on note cards, and not a tool with which one has a relationship, that one uses to move, to extend one's own freedom.
If the focus moves from the processes and relationships built around certain objects, tools, and practices, to their decorative value alone, their potential is lost: they do not move the mind in new ways, or cause individuals to reconstitute eroding social relationships, the bedrock of real social change.
DIY and Grassroots Modernism as Hope for a Future Autonomy
We should judge DIY practices not solely by their economic consequences or surface political effects, but by their potential to transform individual and collective psychologies. They provide a means for a return to a human sphere of action, a route out of the cycles of panic, depression, and alienation exemplified not just by today's infoworkers but by many engaged in traditional forms of organizing and political action.
Too often we bemoan the apathy or passivity of those who do not participate in these traditional forms of reform and resistance. But these forms themselves use the apparatuses of semiocapitalism. They may temporarily mobilize thousands for worthwhile ideals. But they result in the same cycles of anxiety, and fail to produce what is critical: a desire for autonomous action. This is foundational for any political movement that is not either apathetic, fatalistic, or submissive. It allows for movement towards economic independence, which removes the fear bred by reliance on governments and corporations for daily survival.
Grassroots modernism, partially manifested as an autonomous technoculture, carves out space for autonomous desire. As an ethos and practice, it offers us both psychological and practical tools with which to confront the techniques of our domination. It provides a confidence and belief in one's own capacity to produce, to think, and to want, beyond the disciplined desires of consumerism, and the skills to physically transform the world in which we live, and which shapes our future desires and capabilities for action.
Without the conscious understanding of itself as an attitude of critique, this may become yet another coopted subculture. But if taken as an ethos, connected to a powerful daily practice of transforming our own material conditions, it may indeed provide a means for a growth of capabilities, at last disconnected from intensifying power relations; a means for a future autonomy and a present hope.
All quotes in this essay from Foucault come from "What is Enlightenment?” in Ethics: Subjectivity and truth, by Michel Foucault, edited by Paul Rabinow, The New Press, New York, 1994, p.303-320.
See Kant's essay “What is Enlightenment?” This is easily available online, at sites such as: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html.
Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!, AK Press, Oakland, 2008.
A brief summary of Berardi's understanding of semiocapitalism can be found at http://scepsi.eu/italian-anomaly-in-the-sphere-of-semiocapital/.
Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009. The remaining Berardi quotes are all from this work.
For those looking for a similar discussion of the political as a psychological problem, but one less taken with critical theory as the background for analysis, I recommend Bruce Levine's Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, 2011.