Affective Composition.

By Gavin Grindon

Gavin Grindon is currently a researcher and lecturer in visual culture at Kingston and Goldsmiths Universities in London, where he is writing a book about the history of the idea of revolution-as-festival from the avant-garde to contemporary social movements. He has been involved in a number of art/activist projects, most recently the Great Rebel Raft Regatta at the 2008 Climate Camp. He is a member of the Creative Resistance Research Network.

Attempts to understand and harness affect as a means of political organisation have for a long time been regarded as the property of the Right. This assumption has a long history, going back to the overdetermined ambiguities of George Sorel’s writing and the still common dismissals of George Bataille’s early writing on the potential of affect as proto-fascistic. Meanwhile, the structures of the Right, whether state nationalism or corporate advertising, have gone about successfully using affect to reproduce themselves on a mass scale. The left has instead mostly occupied itself with the sport of the underdog, in the ideological critique of the myths this produces, as if this were a prerequisite to organisation. But in recent times as the capitalist enclosure of everyday and private life becomes increasingly advanced, the link between affect and social organisation becomes equally unavoidable.

The attempt to understand affect’s determinate relation to the agency of social change has mostly proceeded via attempts to integrate theories of affect and historical materialist methodology, most famously in Bakhtin’s carnival or the notion of revolution-as-festival developed by the Situationists or even Guattari’s micropolitics. There has been an equal proliferation of self-conscious practices in this direction, from Constructivist experiments to tactical media and post-Situationist art-activism.

Affective Composition is another attempt to rework the role of rationalism and materialism in Marxist theory. This term ‘composition’ referred, in Operaist or autonomist theory, to two antagonistic forms of social organisation. On the one hand, technical composition – the shaping of the socius by the demands of capital. This comes in the form of management discipline and economic restructuring (for example, Fordism). But we can extend it to include the shaping of architecture and social space from above as extensions of these acts of shaping. On the other hand, there is political composition –the composition from below of the working class against capital, at the root, in the everyday and often invisible appearance of new emergent forms of struggle, subversion and organisation. This concept has been reworked since the 1970s by emphasising the term political composition rather than class composition, in the service of a broader conception of composition including those composing new power relations not only of class but of race, gender, sexuality and ability. This too has its aesthetic aspects, and affective composition is one part of this movement of composition and constitution.

This discussion of affects is made in broad strokes, and intended as a starting point to be superseded by more intimate, complex accounts. The term by which we describe both our subjective motivation and social movement (in its Greek derivation also for common and multitude) shares its Indo-European root with that which describes the stirring, agitation or shaking of the emotions. To be moved. And the perspective above ties affect to labour power, or how we feel to what we do, at the level of ontology. If we understand labour-power, our ability to create value, as possible not only in the form of work (labour for surplus value), but as the production of other values, it firstly occupies a terrain we identify by ‘the aesthetic.’ The organisation of its antagonism must also be, in a considerable measure, an aesthetic practice. In this ways, political composition composes revolution on the principles by which one might normally compose a work of art. Indeed, this method revives the original meaning of poetry. Poesis was a borrowing from the Greek po?sis: to create or compose, and cognate with the Old Slavic ?initi: to arrange or order. Creativity is a matter of organisation - the placing of paint on a canvas, the framing of an image, the arrangement of notes and sounds, the metre and choice of lexis. It is in the nature of labour-power’s creative arrangement and the making of the world to be active and self-directed, rather than reactive and directed from without. We might think here of Deleuze’s organisational notion of the refrain or Hakim Bey’s suggestion that anarchy is composed like music. In this respect labour-power, like creativity, is an untimely concept.

The underlying affects of technical composition, in the broadest terms, are often those of sadness, of alienation. That is, of a lack of power-to. Alienation is not a lack of critical consciousness, but a matter of time and space. If alienation was the lack of critical subjectivity, the working class would have no notion of what working class subjectivity was or could be. That is, one would have no notion of alienation in the first place. In fact, alienation points us towards the necessity of resisting capital. The suffering of the subject's gaping lack is the sign of its very presence and vitality as he screams 'bad air! bad air!' and is forced to make a creative leap. From this perspective, rupture and separation are not conceived as an irrational break, and neither is affect presented as a sublime irrationalism. Instead, not only is alienation’s affective reaction to capital a quite rational, and even historically determinate, reaction, but it is the foundation of social-critical rationality. Alienation is not a lack of critical subjectivity but the affective, psychological refusal of subjectivity to participate in capitalist social relations. Alienation is the imagination on strike.

The presence of desire, from which the above analysis draws its meaning, entails a dynamic of separation, of leaps and moments which we find in the affective descriptions and language which Bakhtin, Bataille, Lefebvre, the SI and others who turn from theory to poetry in attempting to describe this situation of the subjective point of rupture, the impossible demand. The everyday affects of political composition are those of limits and their transcendence: irony, the tragic and the sublime. These are not comfortable positions, but they are ones we all regularly find ourselves in when dealing with social relations of power. In the aesthetics of the global justice movement, there has been an emphasis on the laughter and joy of transcendence, from the ‘lightness and joy of communism’ described by Hardt and Negri, the pink and silver carnivalesque festivals of resistance or even (and this perhaps is this moment’s enclosure) the election of Hope. Though the social context of our movements since the triple crises of war, climate and economy has changed, there has been less attention on the changed tone this might bring to our practices of composition. We might pay more attention to the spaces before transcendence, and to the role of sadness. Paolo Virno has observed, for example, that the sublime was theorised as an affect of terror experienced from a position of safety, but that now with widespread precarity undercutting any such position, these social crises confront us as ‘a relation to the world in all its drama’ in which we confront our lives in bare terms. Rather than a heroic, impossible but necessary leap into fullness and joy, we are left with multiple minor, quotidian negotiations, all equally impossible. The affect of this situation is of a more difficult, tragic joy. Though it might seem less ambitious, perhaps this is a more intimate, historical position to begin from. Colectivo Situaciones, advocating not a sad politics but a politics ‘within and against sadness’ present one possible trajectory here.

The theoretical problem of affective composition is that of measure. For capital, the problem of measure is that of the extraction of surplus value. Advertising agencies, critically and consciously working to determine affect, compete on the basis of their effective feedback mechanisms, of statistics that try to tie affect to the hard results of consumer behaviour. For those opposed to capital, the problem of linking affect to effect is possibly more complex, because the effects we work for, a life based on other values to those of capital, not predetermined in advance, are beyond measure. Or, perhaps, this means affect and effect are in fact more closely tied. What is success composed of? What does that feel like? What moves us, from here to there?