Experimental Procedures for New Ontologies

Review essay of: Bruno Latour (ed.), Reset Modernity (2016). Cambridge: MIT Press, 560 pp.

In 2013, French philosopher Bruno Latour baffled his growing audience with the publication of An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (henceforth AIME), a 500-page tome containing Latour’s attempt at a systematic philosophy with the ambition and scale of Hegel’s Phenomenology, claiming that our modern world is best understood by delineating the fifteen “modes of existence” that make it up (Latour 2013a). Although this 500-page monster caused confusion even amongst his most seasoned readers, for Latour himself it was only the start. Simultaneously, Latour launched an interactive website through which fellow scholars could contribute to his study of those that give themselves the attribute of “modern”. While studying “the moderns”, as Latour would call these people, contributors to the website detracted or added from the “modes of existence” that made up the ontology of the moderns.1

The whole AIME-project (that is, the book, multiple workshops, lectures and online discussions) came to an end with an exhibition in the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe called Reset Modernity. In the past, Latour had already, together with Peter Weibel, director of ZKM, utilised exhibitions for exploring and investigating specific topics in his work, inviting many prominent scholars, curators and artists to reflect with him on these topics. This resulted in two large catalogues that also function as reference work for scholars interested in Latour’s work (Latour and Weibel 2002, 2005). And now his latest exhibition has produced again a sizable tome, simply named Reset Modernity (henceforth RM). Even if this catalogue is a bit shorter than his previous two, the volume is still full to the brim with articles of prominent scholars across many disciplines, such as anthropologist Philipe Descola, art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, philosopher Isabelle Stengers and intercut with essays and artworks by artists such as Armin Linke, Friedrich Casper David and Tomás Saraceno, to name but a few.

In RM Latour asks his readers to reset their sensing devices in order to render sensible to us the things that make us modern. Long-time readers notice that he is continuing his research into modernity as set out in his 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern, in which Latour argued that our conception of modernity came down to a rigid and unbridgeable distinction between subjects and objects, culture and nature. More shockingly, Latour argued that this great watershed between subject and object had never taken place as our practices showed that we constantly relied on entities that defied that categorisation, so-called quasi-objects (Latour 1993, 51–55). Only our thinking had been modern, our practices had never been. AIME was the answer to a question posed to Latour after finishing We Have Never Been Modern, namely “if we never were modern, what are we then?” (Latour 2013b). The somewhat paradoxical answer was that we are modern, albeit not in the sense that philosophers usually understood this condition. The problem for Latour was that since we understand the world through the Modern Constitution that divided subject and object we are not well equipped to understand quasi-objects , while a proliferation of quasi-objects is precisely what makes our society, or rather our collective, as Latour would say, modern (Latour 1993, 13–15; 88–90).2

RM promises procedures through which we can rid ourselves of our ontological preconceptions and truly start to understand ourselves as modern. A task which is, according to Latour, very urgent in the age of large-scale environmental problems, smartly captured in the notion of “the Anthropocene”. But what is precisely the danger if we modern people cannot conceive of ourselves as modern? According to Latour’s opening essay Let’s touch base, the problems revolve around nihilism: a politico-theological aspect of modernity. The introduction sees Latour at his most ferocious, producing lines like “the modernizing frontier seems ready to swallow humans and nonhumans alike, plunging all of them into the midst of a general destruction of the conditions fit for life”, and “transcendence [has] been transformed into the abandonment and condemnation of this world” (11).3 Here, the modernizing frontier and transcendence are used interchangeably. Latour points out religious and economic wars as the source of the “general destruction” and these events are cast as processes attracted by transcendent goals. Both are attracted towards some beyond: “religious wars for the colonization of a nonexistent afterworld; […] economic wars for territories that are equally insubstantial” (11). Latour’s warnings of nihilism recall Nietzsche’s (anti-Christian) crusade against nihilism. Nietzsche wrote against life-denying longings, and the acts of self-flagellation and practices of punishment associated with it (See: Nietzsche 1998). Latour does something similar: in the Anthropocene the viability of the planet is at stake, and the belief in some transcendent beyond is causing the trouble.

But what is Latour’s alternative? He contrasts nihilism with the earthly (which we interpret as a term for the immanence of actants), the secular and the material as better dwellings for thought and practice. Latour’s goal this time around seems to be: offering procedures for discovering our Earth anew, not as a place to realise a transcendent beyond that calls upon us, but as a place in which we need to learn how to survive or prevent the looming environmental catastrophes by moving “neither up nor down, but within and along the world” (20). Ridding ourselves of the old “modernizing frontier” by resetting our modern sensibilities would thus help us to find the Earth again.

Resetting however, Latour is quick to stress, should not be understood as the act of rebooting our electronic devices (e.g. resetting my mobile phone), a simple push on a button. Instead Latour alludes to how technical instruments are reset, by recalibration. For example, recalibrating measuring instruments in such a way that they are able to detect the modern entities and value them appropriately; but also the recalibration of navigation instruments, seeking for new points that can help to orient the moderns. An urgent issue since the older horizons that we used to navigate modernity (e.g. secularization, liberal democracy, civilisation, rationalisation, etc.) are either under pressure all over the world, or have proven to be problematic.

The reset procedures are invitations for the reader to develop new ontologies that escape the Modern Constitution. Their outcome is uncertain: although Latour has his ontologies already mapped out, it is clear that his collaborators are not convinced yet and want to find their own ways; what’s more, whether these procedures render new ontologies at all is questioned by some contributors. This gives the procedures offered an experimental character. Thus for the remainder of this essay, we take this experimental route and see what the possible outcome of following Latour’s procedures can be, reviewing the volume in the process.

Procedures 1 & 2: Relocalizing the Global; Without the World or Within

For those who are familiar with Latour’s output before AIME, procedures 1 & 2 are familiar territory. Just as in Science in Action (Latour 1988a) or The Pasteurization of France (Latour 1988b) Latour asks us to look beyond ready-made knowledge and see the messy practices that purify scientific results bringing the quasi-objects that underpin the workings of modern science into view. The novelty is that Latour does not concentrate on knowledge but on our practices of making pictures of the world (cf. Heidegger 1977a). Following Peter Sloterdijk, Latour considers that the predominant modern way of picturing the world is globular (see: Sloterdijk 2014). Globes are not only a representation of all earth’s land and seas as an interconnected whole; in the modern perception it is also that in which or on which we reside. Slogans as “think globally, act locally” seem to suggest that the image of the globe is essential to understand the impact humans have on the earth in the Anthropocene. Yet, as Latour remarks in his book Facing Gaia: “the danger is always the same: the figure of the Globe authorizes a premature leap to a higher level by confusing the figures of connection with those of totality” (Latour 2017, 130). As Latour explains, the globe is an abstraction but is confused for the totality; the result, all the practices and materials involved into making this abstraction disappear from the totality.

In RM Latour explains this mistake of the image of the globe by discussing Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten (53). What seems at first an educational film about what science can tell us about the largest and smallest possible scales, turns out to be riddled with “globes”; their integration provides a perfect antithesis to what Latour tries to achieve in his first procedure in particular, and RM in general. Effortlessly, the film’s camera travels from the sphere of the galaxy to the sphere of our DNA-structure. But that one camera does not exist. Multiple recording devices were needed to produce the pictures we see. All the pictures are stylized in order to let us grasp the information in them more easily. Others, such as those of a carbon nucleus, could more accurately be described as an artist’s impression. The smooth transition the film gives us would have taken, in reality, complicated travels among laboratories and artist’s studios around the world.

Not only does Latour invite us to imagine the travels between the laboratories but also to take a look inside them. If we would, for example, visit NASA’s research division, we would learn that the famous Blue Marble picture from 1972, which features in the Powers of Ten, is actually made up of large datasets of photos stitched together, removing a lot of cloud formations in the process. Not only are the jumps between the spheres not smooth, closer scrutiny proves that the spheres do not even hold together.

By thinking through such examples Latour helps to rid us of those totalising world pictures, which were according to Martin Heidegger so fundamental to our modern way of thinking. Without the globe, Latour asserts, we are “able to follow connections without jumping […] to the ‘big picture’” (54). Ridding ourselves of the “big pictures”, the second procedure neatly connects by ridding ourselves of another major framework that guides our understanding, the already mentioned subject-object scheme, more specifically, the positioning of object and subject as always face-to-face. Knowledge must be understood to never rely “on such a face-to-face of object and subject and a subject-with-nothing-else-to-do-but-gazing-on-an-object” (93). Latour proposes that instead of imagining the production of knowledge to be this vertical relation, we should “shift direction sideways by ninety degrees” (93): knower and known are now on the same plane (‘within” the world; a plane of immanence).4 Latour”s final word on the matter is that we must move away from the vertical scenography, and should replace our faulty self-understanding with “[registrations of] the experience of dealing with the world” (93).

Giving this procedure more colour than the usual Latourian fare is the addition of essays by critical Latour interlocutors Pablo Jensen, Philippe Descola and Graham Harman, amongst others, who shed new light on what it means to go beyond the subject-object scheme. For example, in his essay How We Became Modern: a View from Afar Descola equally sets out the procedure(s) Latour prescribes, where he understands them as “considering the conditions that made them [the moderns] modern” (122). Remarkably enough, Descola arrives at different results than those of Latour. Noteworthy of Descola’s identification of the moderns is that it helps to fulfil two tasks in the procedure. Firstly, a historical investigation and corroboration of the production of hybrids veiled by the moderns’ cosmological dichotomy; secondly, more importantly, Descola’s anthropological work allows us to see the modern’s cosmology/ontology alongside (rather than above) “premodern” cosmologies, persuading us that throwing out subject and object does not make for an inhospitable world, and encourages one to experiment with nonmodern thought. As such, Descola adds to the procedure and helps us in considering our place on earth together with other collectives.

Procedure 3: Sharing Responsibilities: Farewell to the Sublime

Procedures 1 and 2 brought our own modern collective of quasi-objects in view, in contrast with the exclusive human “society”, and made us aware that there are other collectives on the earth who may not share our “cosmology”. But how is it possible to direct our attention and action with regard to environmental problems without a globe? And with multiple collectives inhabiting the Earth, what is responsible for these problems if not “humanity”? The third procedure asks us to conceive of new ways of how to share responsibilities, while being wary of the temptation of another big Western concept, the sublime.

Traditionally, the moderns considered responsibility as reserved for their individual actions. In extension, responsibility was also something that was felt towards a community, and later on towards society. In the seemingly modern times a new responsibility was added: that for humanity as a whole. In short, the limits of their feeling of responsibility are always formed by the limits of their (collective) subjectivity: from the individual to the community, to a universal idea of humanity. In contrast, one seldom feels responsibility for nature, nor was nature ever a moral agent. But in the Anthropocene, it seems that nature’s catastrophes are at least partly co-produced by humans. Thus one can ask if we are to blame when another hurricane hits the coast.

Our first response may be to morally perfect ourselves and include nature in the moral realm. But then we run into trouble since the Anthropocene not only questions our responsibilities, it also asks “who is this humanity?” Is the whole of humanity responsible for climate change, including residents of Indian slums, and the Amerindians of the Amazon forest? Surely not. For this reason some criticasters of the term Anthropocene have proposed the alternative Capitalocene, identifying Capitalism and capitalist powers as those who are (or should be held) responsible. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s contribution to RM lists all new proposals for new “-cenes”, including their pros and cons (189-99; cf. Moore 2017). Still, with no common human responsibility, how can we account for the fact that the very existence of humanity is potentially threatened by climate change, a fate the moderns share with the Indian Slums, and Amazon Amerindians?

Latour’s answer to these questions (what is humanity in the Anthropocene? and what is its responsibility?) uses an idea developed by the inventor James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis, known as the Gaia-hypothesis. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, reprinted in RM (200-4), Lovelock explains the following about the origins of this hypothesis:

[I]n marches another astronomer […] who announces that a complete analysis had been made of the Martian and Venusian atmospheres, and that they are nearly all carbon-dioxide with just traces of other things. I knew instantly that there was almost certain no life on either planet, and that suddenly made me think, well, what about Earth? Why does it have an atmosphere so different […]? And then, it came to my mind as a flash of enlightenment: we must be regulating the atmosphere. And then I thought, again almost instantly, where do the gases come from? We know oxygen comes from plants, and methane, which it reacts with, comes from bacteria. Those are both living things. Carl Sagan’s first remark was “O Jim, it’s nonsense to think that the Earth can regulate itself. […]” But then he said, “Hold on a minute, there is one thing that has puzzled us astronomers, and that is the “cool sun problem.” At the Earth’s birth, the sun was 30% cooler than it is now, so why aren’t we boiling?” […] I thought, if that’s true, then all the biota have to do is regulate the CO2 and they control the temperature. (203-4).

The Gaia-hypothesis states that life on Earth is not simply the result of the right conditions, but that living beings play an active role in stabilizing these conditions. As such, all the organisms of Earth cooperate in order to regulate the temperatures on Earth. This cooperation, as one ecosystem as it were, is what Lovelock and Margulis called Gaia. When adapting this hypothesis for his own philosophy Latour is wary of its holistic overtones. Gaia, in Latour’s interpretation, is not simply a large self-regulating thermostat-system in which all life on Earth has to participate. Nor is it a super-organism, of which all other organisms are merely a part. Such thinking invokes Gaia as an ancient Goddess, whose divine providence rules over all mortals, such as us humans.

Latour robs Gaia of her divine providence in order not to go back to the Romantic idea of the sublime, a terrifying nature in which man’s existence is insignificant. But he keeps some of her godly features. She announces herself to the people, undertakes action by raising the temperature on Earth, and it’s the people who invoke her when they take action for the well-being of all the Earth. Since not all collectives are called upon by Gaia in the same manner, nor invoke her in the same way, not all peoples share the same responsibility. And indeed the call of Gaia may sound the loudest for those capitalist powers. Mediated by Gaia, the peoples of the Earth no longer have a need for an overreaching humanity to understand their actions as bearing responsibility for all life on the planet. Going through procedure 3 gives us the first contours of the new horizon for us moderns, a non-totalizing entity in which we share our existence with nonhumans.

Procedures 4 & 5: From Lands to Disputed Territories; Innovation not Hype

The unfortunate reality of modern political discourse is that the interests of Gaia are measured against the interest of “the economy”. In AIME, Latour has called the economy a meta-dispatcher, a container in which all social relations are reduced to one particular set of forces: in the economic case, social relations are expressed by monetary values and individual preferences (Latour 2013a, 401–2). The problem of the economic reduction is twofold: first, caring for Gaia most likely involves a reduction of consumption and emission, and thus a restraint on the growth of the economy as such. Secondly, economic values and relations are given excessive attention, while those values which are not easily transformed into monetary value and individual preferences remain out of sight. This puts heavy constraints on what us moderns can value, especially now we obviously share our life-world with nonhumans.

The fourth procedure thus turns attention to how we could improve on the way we do economics and how we can account for what we hold dear. In RM the attempts to undertake such endeavours are somewhat disappointing. Martin Giraudeau, Antoine Hennion, Vincent-Antonin Lépinay, Cormac O’Keeffe and Consuelo Vásques make preliminary sketches of how to improve economics. Their motto seems to be: localise as much as possible (260-271). In other words: economics should engage in real-world experiments wherever it can, and refrain from making law-like claims on the functioning of an overall system. Sometimes they cite the writings of the neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, and one is tempted to think that we’re dealing with a free-market proposal in disguise. But the authors defend themselves, saying they are not the “aggressive Darwinist” Hayek was (266), and they propose circumstances under which market-forces could be commanded to halt. If the economy is not an overreaching system, but a collection of local sites, then there is more space for social democracy to exist outside of economic needs, and truly provide a protection against the excesses of market forces. A social democracy outside of the economy is a tempting vision but does not yet connect to any real-world situation. Moreover, all essays, Latour’s included, in this procedure give no clue whatsoever on what kind of institutions could guarantee the limits of market forces.

Procedure 5 zooms in further on the relation between us moderns and the entities making up their collective. The classic tale we find in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Heidegger, or Carolyn Merchant, is that with the advent of modernity our relationship with nature becomes mediated by technology and becomes one of instrumental rationality, being enframed or undergoing violent domination (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002; Heidegger 1977b; Merchant 1980). These descriptions are neither adequate to describe our relation to technology and nature, nor desirable, but the hype has us in its grip when a seemingly major technological step has been taken (a computer defeating a Go master, for example) which shows we have not yet rid ourselves of thinking in these modern constellations. Latour suggests that we should conceive of our relationship with technological entities not in terms of instrumentality, but in terms of care. Even the most freighting technology, such as, for example, military drones who are able to kill people on the other side of the world, should not be seen as the inevitable new stage of warfare due to technological change, but as problem children. In not caring for these technologies, we would miss how drones being piloted from great distances completely rewrite sovereign law.5

This is what Latour takes from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1831) in his play Gaia: Global Climate Tragi-Comedy (328-36). Here it becomes clear that Frankenstein’s fault is not that he created his creature, but that he abandons it because it isn’t as beautiful as he had hoped. Frankenstein’s author asks her own creature Viktor why he has imitated the vengeful God that drowned the Earth to rid himself of his sinful creations. “No Mary. I didn’t imitate him since I ran away. It’s not creating that is a crime, it’s abandoning one’s Creation” Viktor replies (335).

Procedure 6: Secular at Last

The most puzzling is the sixth procedure. Harking back to his opening statement against nihilism and restating the immanence of being, Latour has to find a different place for religion than the one usually given it in Western philosophy. Moreover, in reference to the works of Eric Voegelin, Latour is keen to stress that, even in a secular age, transcendence has not left politics (Voegelin 1987). Therefore Latour asks: what are we to do to make politics and religion earthly? In asking this question Latour gives a new twist to the notions of secular and secularization. With these terms Latour means disentangling the political and the religious from transcendence (364); from attractors that do not take into account what tethers these practices to “the collective,” downgrading religion and politics to the driving forces behind wars.

Latour’s line of thought seems to be that to make politics or religion earthly, one has to discern what specifically political or religious skills and actions amount to. Once we discern these, we might be “freed from the strange idea that there is an activity whereby a human could master mastery so thoroughly that it no longer depends on any other source of power” (365), that the political or the religious could make an entire future happen. But, as Latour is keen to stress, they cannot: they share this earth with other beings. Denying that is nihilistic.

Picking one essay to demonstrate how to view politics in an earthly fashion, we will read Gerard de Vries’s answer to the question: What are Politicians for? He argues that the political should be a practice in which one bears a responsibility to one’s constituency. Politicians are preoccupied with “the defense of the decisions the assembly will make”; whether the outcome of the political process is “good enough […]” knowing that “[t]here will never be general approval. [The politicians] are preparing for what comes next” (391). By contrast, sometimes the political and the religious, especially in conjunction, amount to perversions of these practices. The game of responsibility (a specifically political skill) that De Vries describes is not wrong in itself, and the positive result of this “procedure” is that one might engage with politics without feeling as if one is subjecting oneself to mere power-games – “A good site to open up the possibility of diplomacy” (365) indeed, because if we are to engage with other collectives in a diplomatic way we need to trade our supposed mastery of the world for a particular kind of weakness.

Procedure 7: In Search of a Diplomatic Middle Ground

As has become clear in the previous procedures, Latour is looking for a reorientation of the project of modernity, but it is essential that this new front of modernisation cannot become the measuring rod by which we judge the non-moderns, as for example happened when Canada’s governments falsely blamed the First-nation hunters for the declining Caribou population, applying the new rules of the Anthropocene to all people equally (Parlee, Sandlos, and Natcher 2018). Moreover, in so far as we are modern, we cannot expect the non-modern to follow the same path of modernisation. Still, given the redistribution of responsibilities in the Anthropocene, all the collectives of the earth are forced to interact and to coordinate their actions. These actions cannot be given shape by a similar horizon of modernity, and thus we should instead have recourse to the act of diplomacy for our coordination with other collectives.

Enter diplomacy. Diplomacy must take place in an encounter between different collectives, between which lies a “middle ground” (405). Rather than a fierce show-down between cultures (Latour mentions the colonization of the Americas), “middle ground” designates the possibility of genuine epistemo-cultural recalibration. The Other then is no longer a mere premodern, or a nonhuman that cannot speak the modern as no longer superior.6 Rather, again annulling the binary, “we are all beginning to be equally amodern”, which means that the affairs of us moderns, too, (including the scientific – think of particular methods or distinctions) “are open to ridicule in the face of the others who, themselves in their turn, don’t know how to address them” (407-8). Discovering of the practices hidden by modern definitions already changes “the very idea of what a science is” (405), but this idea is on the diplomatic middle ground up for more scrutiny: comparing, for example, our value of objectivity with the values within other collectives. In a bilateral exchange there are chances of epistemological and existential transformation: “what you encounter can jeopardize the solidity of the epistemological framework that sent you into the field. […] You are never sure to survive the encounter” (405).

Latour makes a remark specifically meant for philosophers: “diplomatic encounters have a strange capacity to modify the way philosophers define their task” (407). Engaging in diplomacy should prompt us to pay closer attention to what we actually do, because we will have to explain it to others. The task of non-modern thinkers will come to include careful acts of description, as Jamie Allen, Claudia Mareis and Johannes Bruder write: “[t]he “reset” […] cracks our modern imaginaries, all the while attempting to log the enunciations of our archival world, dragging along with it an earthly historical ballast, never naively trying to escape [modernity]” (505), and it certainly seems to us that the prospect of diplomacy, an immanent goal for thought to work towards, and keeping on this earthly path with its historical ballast, would certainly make for interesting philosophy, as the essays in this volume demonstrate.


In an interview with Les Temps Modernes Latour was critically asked about the apparent systematic nature of his AIMEproject: “[Why] counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine?” (Marinda 2015). This question is raised again in the last procedure of RM: is the systematic nature of the AIME project not too closed off in order to be truly diplomatic? Many of the philosophers who contributed to the book are willing to engage with the modes of existence that Latour has proposed, yet few of them accept the systematic ontological classification of these modes, and which is reprinted again at the end of RM (543-6). If even the AIME contributors reject the systematic classification, what then is the upshot of the whole project? Reading through RM provides an answer.

The issues posed by the advent of the Anthropocene ask for a new way of thinking about our relation to the world and a new form of collective action, actions for which our current institutions fall hopelessly short. In lectures given surrounding the Reset Modernity exhibition and thereafter, Latour has sketched a new framework for understanding our current political affairs with regard to what he calls The New Climate Regime.7 Here, Latour presents the Earth as the new horizon that could be used to coordinate political action. But what is this Earth, what does it mean to be a horizon for actions? The resetting procedures of RM help us to conceive what this new horizon can look like.

From procedures 1 and 2 it is clear that Earth cannot be a totalising picture, or a frontier that divides the people into modern and premodern. As with Gaia in procedure 3, Earth shows us the kind of responsibilities we have together with other collectives for the place we inhabit (the Earth itself). Consequently, it does not presuppose a shared humanity (identity for the Earth dweller) just the simple fact that we (who/whatever) are all in this together. Furthermore, the Earth has no transcendence, no meaning in the depths of her cave: we cannot die in the name of the Earth in the hope of gaining a better Earth (procedure 6).

Similarly, the Earth is no utopia guiding our politics, and it is a far cry from the techno-inflated visions of the future that Silicon Valley provides us with: technology is not here to save us, but we have to learn to live with technology (procedure 5). Lastly, the Earth is rich in resources, but ultimately limited. And given that there is not one collective that inhabits the Earth, this means we have to reconsider how much of Earth’s resources we have to use, in order to leave enough for other collectives. What do we value in our modern lifestyles and what do we need to sustain them (procedure 4)? If we gain that knowledge, we can negotiate with the other collectives how to make use of Earth’s resources. This negotiation should be an act of diplomacy (procedure 7), in which the only common ground between the parties is the one beneath their feet, the Earth. The Earth is in a sense a political fiction, a way of imagining politics, perhaps just as the Leviathan pictured on the front piece of Hobbes’ famous book was a fiction. On the other hand, the Earth is very mundane, very concrete, very tangible.

RM perhaps does not reach a complete doctrine of how Earth should feature in politics, nor of how politics oriented towards the Earth should concretely take place. But RM gives us something other which is important, namely a set of terms (Earth, Gaia, Diplomacy, Collectives) that can replace our previously held dear “grand narratives” of the globe, humanity, the free market, etc., which used to navigate our moral and political action, without becoming totalizing. Concluding, RM does not yet yield concrete answers or lasting ontologies, but as the procedures for calibrating our scientific measuring instruments have become more refined over the centuries, so too, we hope, may the procedures that help us to understand our modernity become better over time.


Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand wrote portions of this review whilst on the Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy project, receiving funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 679586).

The Wave

“Any news medium that reports on Baudet [leader of the FvD party, eds] pressing charges for slander and defamation, without mentioning that Baudet wants to purge slander and defamation from the penal code, is complicit in a PR-stunt”. This was the tweet yesterday by Rob Wijnberg [editor of De Correspondent, eds.], regarding charges by Baudet against Ollongren [Dutch vice-premier and interior minister, eds.].

The irony is that this makes Wijnberg also complicit in that PR-stunt.

And now I am too.

Like clockwork: a meta-perspective is written about the disproportionate and unjustified media attention for Baudet, as a result of which the written becomes a direct part of that problem.

In this piece, now, the exact same happens.

We are trapped in it. The man has two parliamentary seats. Nevertheless, he keeps us constantly occupied and fuels the media-and opinion machine.

We smell danger. Understandably. We are triggered by news messages about race theories, about purification and superiority. It cannot be, we think, we believe, that these sort of archaic ideas are back in public discourse. So there is a fuss. So there is attention. The media spirit soothes hunger with it.

But precisely because of that, by spitting out our indignation, by devoting articles to it, we give the discussion, and therefore also its views, legitimacy. If someone claims something nonsensical and you call out “WHAT NON-SENSE”, then you have entered into a conversation. A ridiculous conversation, but a conversation nonetheless. “Is it really nonsense?” you hear someone say, and then another person, and another person.

Having a discussion about something ridiculous makes it increasingly less ridiculous. At first you are still stunned that you are having it at all, and then the bewilderment ebbs away.

And so it gets bigger. We all float on a wave heading for something ugly. The wave swells and looks more and more dangerous. Helplessly, we are dragged along. There are no arguments, opinions or articles that can stop the wave. On the contrary: they only make the wave bigger. I also hereby made the wave even stronger.

There is no way back. “Ignore him!” some call out. But it is no longer possible. Even by “Ignore him!” you give him attention. We’re stuck. The media beast must eat. Twitter continues to shit. Facebook continues to puke. Opinion pages must be filled.

There is no innocent, sober, intellectual meta-way to write about Baudet. No matter how far you zoom out, as soon as you write about him you become a dot on the terrain you tried to map.[1]

Acid Communism

Like so many of his neologisms, Mark Fisher’s ‘Acid Communism’ encapsulates a crisis of disambiguation, hurling a provocation into our midst. The phrase — which was to be the title of his next book, now unfinished following his death in January 2017 – has garnered considerable attention as many wonder what kind of variation on Marx’s manifesto might be occasioned by this new corrosive qualifier.

In truth, Acid Communism resists definition. The word ‘acid’ in particular, by invoking industrial chemicals, psychedelics and various sub-genres of dance music, is promiscuous. With so many uses and instantiations in various contexts, it is as difficult to cleanly define as ‘communism’ is in the 21st century. This textual promiscuity is no doubt what attracted Fisher to the phrase, but this has not stopped recent attempts to concretely define it in his absence.

Jeremy Gilbert, a former collaborator of Fisher’s, has led the way, writing a number of articles that turn Acid Communism into a one-dimensional and purely affirmative project, seeking the rehabilitation of the countercultural utopianism of the 1960s and ‘70s. In the New Statesman, Gilbert writes on ‘acid’ in particular and the way that the word still connotes “the liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society [as] a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective.” (Gilbert, 2017). What is absent from Gilbert’s summaries is made clear here. Is such a liberation of human consciousness desirable? Certainly. Achievable? Possibly. But pleasurable? Not always; not essentially.

Acid Communism is a project beyond the pleasure principle. It is not only a project for the recuperation of the counterculture’s lost potentials but also the expression of a desire for an experimental (rather than prescriptively utopian) leftist politics. This is a maneuver present within so many expositions of communism. Marx and Engels themselves wrote how “communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.” (Marx & Engels 2017, 102). Acid Communism is, then, a project for seeking ‘the outside’ of sociopolitical hegemony. As Fisher acknowledged in so many of his writings, this requires an acknowledgement of the fact that to disturb normality is inherently disturbing, but “terrors are not all there is to the outside.” (Fisher 2016, 9).

In the unpublished introduction to Acid Communism, Fisher quotes Michel Foucault explaining that the challenge now is “not to recover our ‘lost’ identity, to free our imprisoned nature, our deepest truth; but instead […] to move towards something radically Other.” (Foucault 1991, 120). This Other is the spectre that Marx and Engels first conjured out of European history; for Herbert Marcuse, it was “the spectre of a world that could be free.” (Marcuse 1998, 93). What haunted Fisher was a similar notion: a collective subject that has long been desired but still resists instantiation. As he wrote in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, the “required subject — a collective subject — does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other global crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed.” (Fisher 2009, 66). Here a spectre is not what is left of something dead and lost. It is atemporal; an “eerie entity”, as Fisher would say, representing both a failure of absence and a failure of presence. It is desire without absolute lack.

For Marx, “desire” is so often inseparable from the commodity. It is never without object. On the very first page of Capital, quoting Nicholas Barbon, Marx defines it in a footnote: “Desire implies want; it is the appetite of the mind, and as natural as hunger to the body.” (Barbon 1696, 2-3). In The Communist Manifesto, however, desire becomes insatiable and speculative: “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.” (Marx & Engels 2017, 55). The production of politics has had much the same effect, eroticising desire, launching it into unknown and forbidden lands; beyond borders, boundaries and limits. Pleasure becomes, in contrast, fatally associated with the familiar.

Acid, in its promiscuity, allows this speculative desire to flow back through communism in both new and forgotten ways. Writing in 1977, Gilles Deleuze offers the most succinct summary of how such a desire functions, explicitly in contrast to Foucauldian “pleasure”:

[T]here is no subject of desire, and no object either. The objectivity of desire itself is only its flows. There is never enough desire. Desire is the system of a-signifying signs out of which unconscious flows are produced in a social-historical field. Every unfolding of desire, in whatever place it may occur, such as a family or a school in the neighbourhood, tests the established order and sends shock waves through the social field as a whole. Desire is revolutionary because it is always seeking more connections. (Deleuze 2006, 81).

In this way ‘Acid’ is desire, as corrosive and denaturalising multiplicity, flowing through the multiplicities of communism itself to create alinguistic feedback loops; an ideological accelerator through which the new and previously unknown might be found in the politics we mistakenly think we already know, reinstantiating a politics to come.


Every New Year’s Eve, the Dutch anarchist scene gathers to celebrate the upcoming year at a detention center. Detention Center Schiphol, near Amsterdam Airport, is the place where ‘illegal’ refugees are kept before they are deported back to the country they’ve fled. The people on the other side of the wall not only hear new year’s wishes in several languages, and music to dance to, but also slogans like “No borders, no nations, stop deportations” and “tout le monde déteste la police.” The anarchists demand the abolition of the prison system and scream at the top of their lungs to communicate their dislike of borders and the nation-state. The new year ritual, however, is more than a symbolic protest, it is an act of solidarity and a way of interacting with, and caring for, each other right now.

Marx’s name justified some of the most horrific regimes because it takes time and strong leaders to bring the perfect communist socialist society into existence. But also in the rare cases when fighting for communism didn’t result in an authoritarian leader taking over, the primacy of one specific struggle – class struggle – over others has caused many movements to neglect important hierarchies and power relations within the group and society at large. Most anarchists agree with large parts of the problem analysis developed by Marxists: capitalism is a problem because it exploits workers. We should strive to eliminate the division of labor, and the unjust valuation of capital in respect to labor, rather than leading a life dictated by capital. Anarcho-capitalists aside – who aren’t considered anarchists by the other currents of anarchism anyway – anarchists of all kinds share a large part of the Marxist analysis. Bakunin and Marx agreed on a lot of things, but fell out over the question of how to accomplish the society in which those problems were not present. “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality”, wrote Bakunin. Marx gave an analysis of the problems with capitalism, but how to proceed was less clear, as underlined by the results of the different attempts of implementing Marx’s thought in different countries. As Peter Hudis reminds us, Marx did not mention the state in the first chapter of volume 1 of Das Kapital, nor does it come up in the discussions on a post-capitalist society in Friedrich Engels’ third volume (2012, 175). At Marx’s 200th birthday we’ve seen attempts to, in Marx’s name, establish communism, and the result of the so-called ‘end of history’ under global capitalism. What we’re left with is freedom without socialism: there is privilege and injustice, but we are afraid to act because of socialism’s history of slavery and brutality.

The term ‘state illusion’ refers to the idea that a radical transformation of society is best accomplished through winning state power. Anarchist Gustav Landauer wrote that “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another” (2010, 214). We thus don’t have to win over state power – where possible we can already start behaving differently today.

The term anarchism comes from the Greek prefix ‘an’ and the verb ‘archein.’ It means no beginning, no leadership, no rule: no government. Besides ‘no government,’ it can also mean ‘no beginning’: we can start right now, we don’t have to wait for any radical revolution or overthrow of government before we start battling privilege and injustice and creating a more just world. When we look for an answer to the problems we are facing today – be it climate destruction, racism, sexism, or increased inequality and poverty – it seems clear that focusing on winning state power is just as ineffective as waiting for government intervention by those already in power. We have to act now and do whatever we can, rather than wait for the revolution.

Anarchists cannot provide a blueprint of what the world should look like. Change should be tried through experimenting. And people should experiment for themselves – no central committee can implement anarchism from above, and no revolutionaries can force the abstinence of government and centralization upon people. If we want to see what the value of Marxism is, we can look at its economic theories and problem analyses. For solutions, we have to experiment, look, prefigure and try on our own. There is no blueprint for utopia. Ana Cecilia Dinerstein argues that in autonomous organizing, value is confronted with hope (2015, 211). Autonomous organizing, in which the anarchist principles of nonhierarchical, anti-capitalist, horizontal organizing are applied, prefigures what a post-revolutionary society should look like, but also already brings it into being right now. Ignoring the walls that divide the refugees from the privileged citizens, singing and dancing, wishing each other a happy new year: it is a first prefiguration, an act of solidarity, an attempt at creating the society we want to see. The anarchist emphasis on doing what is possible now, their way of organizing and interacting, is providing the blueprint for the society that is to come without falling into the trap of the state illusion.


Nonhuman animals are not often considered a factor of importance in Marxist thought, and insights from Marxist thought are not often considered to be relevant to animal studies (Cochrane 2010). Marx himself did not write about nonhuman animals in much detail and saw humans as distinct from all other animals. Even though he had read Darwin (Benton 1993), who famously argued that differences between humans and other animals are of degree and not kind, and recognized the capacities of nonhuman animals to produce, as well as the animal nature of humans (Cochrane 2010), he saw humans as special animals and his theory is anthropocentric in different ways. His historical account for example focuses solely on human history and teleology, not recognizing animal agency or the importance of nonhuman animal- (or interspecies-) labor in capitalism. He also explicitly addresses the human capacity for transcending their animal nature, in contrast to other animals (ibid.). The focus is on human liberation, and the idea of justice for nonhuman animals seems irrelevant from this perspective.

However, as several authors have pointed out (Benton 2003, Noske 1989, Painter 2016, Perlo 2002), Marxist concepts can shed light on specific characteristics of the position of nonhuman animals in capitalist societies, and a focus on nonhuman animals can bring to light dimensions of capitalism that are otherwise obscured. I will first briefly focus on the latter point, the relevance of thinking about animals for Marxism, and then turn to the first in more detail. Our economic, cultural, and social structures are in large part built on nonhuman animal labor and matter. The rise of capitalism is interconnected with the exploitation of nonhuman animals, and the remnants of their bodies are omnipresent in most of the objects and artifacts humans produce. The book PIG 05049 (2007), by Dutch artist Christien Meindersma, illustrates this by documenting what happens to the body of one pig after slaughter. Some body parts are made into food for humans, but her bones, skin, and whatever else is left, are used to make all kinds of objects and materials, ranging from aspirin to gasoline to porcelain. If one would take animal matter out of these products without replacing them, our physical world would collapse. This material use is furthermore interconnected with the production of cultural symbols in capitalism (Shukin 2009).

Nonhuman animal labor is also an important economic force in our societies (Hribal 2003). Barns are filled with chickens laboring for our eggs, cows who are impregnated to keep creating milk, and so on. While many nonhuman animals are used as objects, this does not mean they have no agency. Historian Jason Hribal (2003, 2007) claims that nonhuman animals are part of the working class. He argues they partly instigated the industrial revolution by being unreliable workers and were a driving force in the rise of capitalism. Their cooperation and resistance also shaped human labor and instruments. Rethinking production and labor thus also asks for rethinking relations with other animals. Here it is also important to recognize that the lives of nonhuman and human animal workers are often closely interconnected (see for example Hovorka and Geiger 2015). Human workers in slaughterhouses often suffer from large welfare issues (Pachirat 2011). For poor families, using animal workers is sometimes their only way of surviving. Vulnerable human and nonhuman groups are also often collectively affected by capitalism. Western habits of consumption may hurt animals in industrial farming, together with the non-western human and nonhuman animals whose habitats are destroyed in growing soy for these farmed animals. To analyze or improve the position of one of these groups an intersectional approach is needed. More attention to how different groups are collectively affected might also lead to greater solidarity, which can help bring forward social change.

This brings us to the second point, the relevance of Marxist criticism for theorizing the social and political position of nonhuman animals. First, while capitalism is not necessary for animal oppression – human oppression and use of nonhuman animals seems the standard in most if not all social, political and religious settings – the Marxist focus on material conditions and economic structures can help to criticize the specific forms of oppression nonhuman animals in capitalist societies suffer from. The scale of their oppression is unprecedented and the strong focus on profit in capitalism is interconnected with the lack of progress in bringing about social change. Philosopher Dinesh Wadiwel (2016) shows that under capitalism animals are objectified and commodified for human consumption, for example in undergoing material transformations in order to become meat. They no longer only have use value for humans; they also have exchange value. This benefits humans economically and symbolically, because through using other animals human value is reified.

Second, a focus on nonhuman animal labor is important because, contrary to what Marx thought, other animals work. They work for and with humans, for example in entertainment, experiments, the police force, the army, and health care. They work for themselves, for example to build nests, bridges, houses and gardens, for food, and for artistic reasons (Bekoff 2002): they also work collectively, for example in hunting or building. Some species of nonhuman animals make other animals work for them; certain species of ants for example farm aphids, keeping them close-by through using chemicals on their feet (Oliver et al. 2007). Nonhuman animals cannot perform certain tasks humans can, but animals of many species can do things humans cannot, such as weaving webs. Theorizing labor relations between humans and other animals under capitalism is important for reasons of justice, and in order to work towards new interspecies communities (Meijer 2017).

This aspect of their lives has not been given much attention in animal philosophy so far (Cochrane 2016, Kymlicka 2017). The focus in this field has long been on suffering and/or liberation, instead of formulating new relations. Recent approaches that focus on nonhuman animal agency, politics, and subjectivity, however, point precisely to the importance of forming new relations and communities with other animals, arguing that relations with other animals are unavoidable and that better relations are possible. A focus on nonhuman animal labor can help bring forward animal studies in different ways. From recognizing that other animals work it may follow that humans understand them more fully as co-beings in shared communities (see Kymlicka 2017 for examples). Those thinking about fair interspecies relations need to take into account that work for many other animals is part of living a fulfilled life. This means something different for different species, but boredom is one of the biggest problems for zoo animals and domesticated animals living under the conditions of factory farming, together with loneliness. These animals also very often suffer from alienation (Noske 1989). Finally, it is important to recognize that the conditions under which nonhuman animals live can certainly be improved under capitalism, but that that is not enough to bring about actual change for them. It does not suffice to give nonhuman animals bigger cages or better food: we need to challenge the conditions that enable their large-scale exploitation, beginning with the fact that many of them, as sentient beings, are considered human property, and the fact that humans think they own the planet that we all live on.


The concept of association has its own history, which clearly informs the Marxian use of the term. With Rousseau the term “association” first enters the terminology of social philosophy; he uses the term to positively describe the linking between free and equal citizens. In the Second Discourse Rousseau speaks of “free association, which obliged none of its members,” (Rousseau 2002, 116) as a form of societal organization. In the Contrat Social it will be the contract itself that constitutes the association of a free society. In both cases association appears as self-determined connectivity of the members of a free and equal society.

With this tradition, the term association slowly gains specific connotations. They are linked to the idea of an emancipated society. After Rousseau, Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier specified egalitarian forms of organization as “associations.” Saint-Simon reflected on associations as the form of organization of the classe productive, a professional organization for scientists, artists, and workers that should, in the end, reorganize society. Beyond social atomism, and beyond the market and the state, associations were considered as extrinsic systems of social organization which would not adequately represent the productive classes of society. The idea of an association of producers who would “work together and market their goods in common” (Beecher & Bienvenu 1971, 66) was the central idea of Fourier’s utopianism. Association, for Fourier, Saint-Simon, and their followers, stood for an alternative form of organization. Such associations were meant to connect with the separate field of social production directly, independently of market mediation.

In part related to the theoretical efforts of early socialists, so-called associations became the central element in the working class’s actual self-organization on the ground. Strikes during the French Revolution of 1830, for example, engendered a movement committed to the ideals of associationism. In 1848, Paris alone hosted around 300 of such associations with an approximate collective membership of some 50,000 people. The idea of common labor in self-organized associations, an idea that Charles Fourier had originally conceived for agricultural contexts, will become the leading slogan for urban craftsmen and the organizing industrial working-classes in the early and decisive years of struggle.

In this way, Marx, too, refers to these historical connotations in his use of the term “association,” famously so in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels write, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 506). In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx writes: “The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called…” (Marx 1976a, 182). It will do so by spreading the idea and political form of the self-organization of producers, beginning with every productive unit, as broadly as possible.

Marx and Engels emphasize in the Communist Manifesto that within the bourgeois order a relation between the laborers emerges as its immanent product, something that is already present in a latent form. “The advance of industry,” they write, somewhat teleologically, “whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 496). Time and again “association” describes a form of social organization which functions as means and end for the egalitarian organization of society. From The German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto to Capital (the “Verein freier Menschen” mentioned in the chapter on fetishism is presented to the English-speaking world as the “association of free men”, (see Marx 1976b, 171), this use of the term association can be found as a description of socialist politics and the working class’s self-organization, which transgresses the repressive and alienated organizational forms of state and capital.

Wherever Marx speaks about the organization of a future society, the term association is used to characterize the free and non-coercive form of social organization, through which goods are collectively produced and freely distributed. What Marx finds in the loose and voluntary structure of association is a representation of a collective potential of workers to communally manage the production and distribution of material wealth on both a small and large scale. That which is normally concealed by the socially necessary illusion generated by the commodity form, which is to say, labor, itself gains visibility and autonomy in and through associations.

When sketching outlines of a future society, Marx confronts the institutionalized spheres of state and capital with this self-organizing capacity of the material producers.

Association is a free form of coordination—it helps organize an intrinsic link between the social producers that might otherwise remain invisible. In and through associations the sphere of symbolic representation (the sphere of distribution, the state) is thus confronted with the hidden dynamic of production. In labor-struggles production articulates itself in a way that is normally excluded from an apparent logic of representation.

At least three layers that are crucial for any Marxian version of a future society are implied in the conception of association. First, the model of politics: associations help in articulating labor directly without separating the logics of material production from the sphere of politics (without separating, as in the terminology of Arendt or Habermas, work or labor from action or interaction, and thus, from politics). Second, the organization of social producers who, through the lens of the sphere of circulation, otherwise appear as isolated individuals, as mere owners of commodities. It is the method of free association that lays bare the inner connectivity of the various parts of social production. The particular dynamic and quality of labor associations is, in other words, to organize social elements that in the manifest structure of representation appear as isolated. Third, associations open up new dimensions of social life by re-arranging the conditions for social production. The satisfaction of social needs can directly be addressed in and through their collective articulation. By addressing the field of social production directly, associations help to imagine and produce new forms and conditions of social life. In other words, labor associations are means of poietic production which articulate the forces of a latent structure.

If you wish, you can call these three dynamics of associations (which sketch outlines of a Marxian version of a future society) aesthetic: they integrate muted elements of material practice (and thus, materiality) into the orders of representation, they form new meanings by bringing latent connections to the fore, and they open up new horizons of social practice. Politics can be beautiful.

Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

Marxism is a funny sport: more than in any other philosophical tradition, Marxists can be judged and evaluated by the degree to which they are ‘good Marxists.’ This is not so much about the degree to which they succeed in presenting convincing paradigms of social and cultural theory, but rather about the degree to which they manage to stick to the original program, to integrate the key elements of the originally Marxian theory, and the implications they would have for political practice. How much of a Marxist program was the program of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)? How good a Marxist was a scholar like Hoggart or Hall (Hebdige, McRobbie, and Gilroy)? And, of course, when and for how long?

Founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, the Centre, although not really claiming to be Marxist, published important work on quotidian working-class culture, and, further developed by his more famous successor Stuart Hall, focused mainly on forms of cultural struggle, which classical Marxism had neglected for a long time. Differing greatly from classical Marxism, the strict analysis of political economy never mattered much in the CCCS. The starting point (clearly so in Hoggart’s 1957 work The Uses of Literacy and as in E.P. Thompson’s highly influential 1964 The Making of the English Working Class) was working class culture as a source and means of political articulation. This presupposed an extended understanding of culture and a shift away from the normative orientation in cultural theory, and it led to an understanding of culture which interpreted cultural struggles as dominant sources in the formation of political identities. In some ways the CCCS thus developed its own version of Western Marxism, successively moving into its own version of Post-Marxism and identity politics by continuously shifting away from the main parameters of classical Marxism’s understanding of political struggle (based on labor and economic struggles). Nonetheless, the representatives of the CCCS cultural-analytical program (first and foremost Stuart Hall himself, but also allied thinkers such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams) were amongst the most visible intellectuals in Britain’s New Left (Stuart Hall being the first editor-in chief of the still powerful New Left Review), especially so during the dark age of Thatcherism.

The strongest link to maybe-not-so-classical Marxism but at least to canonical Marxist theory was the explicit reference to the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose concept of hegemony (devoid of its strategic roots in its Leninist fashion, as a merely analytical tool) probably became the most important concept in the political strategy of the CCCS’ version of cultural theory. Clearly, this was the way in which Stuart Hall had understood the centre’s program: “Rightly or wrongly, and especially in the 1970s, the Centre developed, or tried to develop, what I would call a Gramscian project.” (Hall 1990, 17). The understanding of Gramsci’s conception of hegemony quickly developed in non-Marxist directions. In the words of the centre’s specialist on Punk music, Dick Hebdige, hegemony was simply to be understood as the power to “exert ‘total social authority’ over other subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by ‘winning and shaping consent …’.” (Hebdige 1979, 16). Both the concept of class and the idea that hegemony could be an aim of a party-oriented strategy had been replaced with some more general idea of cultural politics.

As a central – somewhat Marxist – point of reference, the concept of hegemony was allowed to stray from the classical doctrine and to enter the world of new struggles, new lines of conflict and, more terminologically, new social movements. Much as in the explicitly (and self-declared) post-Marxist theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, the focus on the cultural determination (and articulation) of social struggles allowed not only the diversification of the classical Marxist horizon, it also left behind for good the emphasis on political economy and class struggle.

In the research program of the CCCS this development is linked to the central lines of conflict that were to be analyzed within the field of (widely understood) popular culture: next to class conflicts, generational conflicts (specifically in the analysis of subculture or youth culture), racial conflicts, and, last but not least, gender conflicts, became central. Stuart Hall was sufficiently clear about this aspect of the CCCS’ program, too: “What we are talking about is the struggle for cultural hegemony, which is these days waged as much in popular culture as anywhere else.” (Hall 1993, 106). Much of the analysis of these dynamics in popular culture remained faithful to the critical analysis of hegemony and was thus still Marxist, if not in content, then at least in some structure. Undeniably, each of these overlapping fields of analysis produced valuable and deeply influential research, and each of these fields could later (simplistically) be identified with second-generation scholars who had specialized in these lines of conflict (as Paul Gilroy on race and the post-colonial condition, or Angela McRobbie on gender, fashion, and girls’ culture).

So much for the analyses and concrete cultural studies. If one looks into the history of the CCCS’ (and its representatives’) publications, one finds surprisingly few original attempts at genuine theory. For philosophers, certainly for theory-philic Marxists, this sounds like a disadvantage. The immense amount of literature that the centre’s representatives have produced was of a different kind: Cultural Studies meant analyses, inquiries into the field of lived cultural practice and not so much abstract theorizing, grand theory, or metaphysics. In this sense, typical theoretical publications which emerged from the context of the CCCS were handbooks, providing theoretical instruments for eclectic cultural analyses. They assembled key concepts and commented on recent contributions to cultural theory without any emphatic systematic interest of their own.

As a genuine and original theoretical program, however, a program that clearly determined the further development of any media-theoretical analysis, the CCCS produced an approach to audience research and the theory of media reception. Condensed in a short article by Stuart Hall, the CCCS presented a new vision of the active role of the audience in the production of cultural meaning. As much as any cultural object was encoded (first produced), it could be decoded (creatively appropriated). Reception finally appeared as an active process that could confront the institutional order of media production with deviance and subversion. Next to ‘dominant codes’ certain possible layers appeared where ‘oppositional codes’ could enter the sphere of mass culture. Thus, the program of the CCCS emphasized the creativity of audiences in making sense of their own world. Methodologically this ended the dominance of the Volksempfänger, which had been kept in place for too long by Marxist cultural pessimists.

Some “pessimism of the intellect”, however, to allude to Gramsci, could have been helpful for the Birmingham program, and, maybe, some sectarianism too. In 1990 already, at the beginning of the decline of any broader claims to leftist cultural hegemony, Stuart Hall stated (referring specifically to the situation in the US) that “‘cultural studies’ has become an umbrella for just about anything” (Hall 1990, 22). Its critical potential faded with the growth of its theoretical indeterminacy. No theoretical tradition is ever fully innocent concerning its legacy, and one may doubt if contemporary cultural studies are of much help in articulating the relevant political antagonisms of the present. Birmingham’s trail-blazing approach to popular culture became all-too popular. As an effect of these dialectics, the Birmingham centre was closed in 2002.

Beauty Industry

The notion “beauty industry” is employed in various fields and from manifold angles, including everyday language. In order to make a critical interrogation of the beauty industry fruitful for Marxist thought, and vice versa, both the beauty industry and the ‘hidden labor of beauty’ (Black 2004, 66-91) must be situated within an analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor. Marxist feminists have furthered Marxist thought by emphasizing and analyzing the fundamental necessity of house and care work (‘reproductive labor’) in capitalism. Attending to the beauty industry from a Marxist feminist perspective allows for extending the analysis of the capitalist gendered division of labor beyond these domains of ‘care work’ or ‘emotional labor’.

In line with Euromonitor, the beauty industry can be defined as including fragrances, hair and skin care products, sun care, color cosmetics, men’s grooming products, bath and shower products, as well as oral and baby care, and as overlapping with other industries and services such as fashion, hairdressers and beauty salons, and plastic surgery and other more medical services (Jones 2010, 9). The use of products to increase attractiveness and alter one’s scent goes way back in history to ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as medieval Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans (ibid., 4). The development of the beauty industry, however, was initiated by a number of female and male entrepreneurs during the nineteenth century. The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of beauty salons and of businesses that marketed beauty products, workplaces which in industrialized countries such as the UK or the US provided some of only a few employment opportunities for White (mostly working-class and some middle-class) women as well as for US Black women and men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Black 2004, 15-21). The history of the beauty industry is by-and-large a history of “large numbers of small and medium-sized entrepreneurial firms” rather than of “capital-intensive, mass marketing and mass production industries” (Jones 2010,15). It would become a mass-industry and increasingly globalized only by the 1920s and 1930s, a trend that intensified massively after World War II (Black 2004, 20-26). Currently, in the 21st century, the beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar global industry, with consumers having each spent on average more than 330 dollars on cosmetics around the world in 2008 (Jones 2010, 1).

The gendered division of labor in capitalism is of at least twofold significance when it comes to the beauty industry. First, in many industrializing countries, a gendered division of labor started to unfold in the White bourgeoisie in the late 18th century (e.g., Sieder 1987) and generalized to the White (e.g., Rendall 1993) and only partly to people of color and black working classes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., Collins 2000, 53f.). This division of labor assigned the wife to reproductive labor in the private sphere of the home and the husband to productive labor in the public sphere. Reproductive labor includes all activities that are needed in order to reproduce the workers’ ability to work, e.g., cleaning, cooking, having and raising children, and many other chores. For the middle-class wife of bourgeois societies in particular, domestic duties increasingly went along with representational as well as consumption responsibilities since the second half of the 19th century (Penz 2010, 14). The woman then became and has, to some extent, remained “the index of [the husband’s] economic situation, the prestige-object of a household, who is ceaselessly occupied in the task of creating fine distinctions” (Vinken 2005, 5), while the husbands’ attire grew more and more homogenized and plain. Beautification practices, in turn, became more and more inextricably linked with femininity.

Second, services and products of the beauty industry, as well as a considerable amount of beauty labor carried out by employees, are increasingly required by a continuously expanding service sector. Furthering discussions about the significance of ‘emotional labor’, especially in the care work occupations, Witz, Warhurst, and Nickson (2003) have examined the rising importance of aesthetics in contemporary organizations as ‘aesthetic labor’. Bourdieu (1984) already hinted at the fact that this form of labor is both fundamentally classed and gendered when he pointed out that it was mainly women of the petit-bourgeoisie who “devote such great investments, of self-denial and especially of time, to improving their appearance and are such unconditional believers in all forms of cosmetic voluntarism” (ibid., 206). What is more, he differentiated between professions with traditionally male representational functions (e.g., diplomacy) and rather new “representational and ‘hosting’ functions” (ibid., 152) which rely on traditional notions of femininity and had led to a market for certain physical attributes where “beauty thus acquires a value on the labour market” (ibid., 153). Following this train of thought, Black (2004) has hinted at the necessity of situating aesthetic labor within a gendered and classed analysis of changes in late capitalist labor markets. Especially for the working classes, traditionally masculine skills valued in the manufacturing sector are becoming increasingly obsolete while the service sector, which relies on skills and features that are traditionally coded as feminine, is ever-expanding. In this sense, Lovell considers femininity as – albeit limited – embodied cultural capital that “may begin to have a competitive market advantage compared with the attributes of traditional working-class masculinity” (Lovell 2000, 25). However, Black (2004, 126) points to the hidden aesthetic labor behind supposedly natural femininity as it requires considerable skills which need to be learned as well as continuous extensive labor, both of which “remain unrecognised when they are viewed as an immanent characteristic of femininity”. Thus, in a sense, aesthetic labor is a form of reproductive labor required in the service sector.


The bohème comes up three times in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The term, partly synonymous with the famous Lumpenproletariat, serves to label French prince-president Bonaparte, after his 1851 coup Emperor Napoleon III, as a “bohemian”, and to label as “noisy, disreputable, rapacious bohème” (Marx 1990, 134) the personnel he assembled at high levels of government. The latter phrase is typical for the style of enumeration in Marx’s attempt to pinpoint the corruption of a bourgeoisie willing to “forfeit the crown” “in order to save its purse” (67). In his view, the bourgeoisie abandons its historical class mission of developing democratic public spheres and industrial production, in favour of an orgiastic filling of purses and bellies under authoritarian rule. Bohème is one of his names for this self-abandonment.

The most poetic of Marx’s outbursts into enumeration is the one that introduces la bohème as a French word, mirroring the Lumpenproletariat upon which follows his list of names for class corruption: Bonaparte made Paris’s Lumpen his political army, Marx writes, and he mimics that army’s composition in his writing, as he invokes the skandalon of an association whose organization is reduced to mere parataxis, opened up by the “alongside” at the start of a sentence (whose main clause doesn’t even have a verb in the German original):

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquerealls, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars-in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (75).

As a political analysis, Marx’s Brumaire describes an ideologically non-class-based political rule in the interest of finance capital, which makes “all classes, equally powerless and equally mute, fall on their knees before the rifle butt” (121). As a piece of philosophy of history, this text famously opens with the historical events that repeat themselves, tragedy returning as farce. Being one embodiment of that illegitimate repetition called farce, the bohème itself has a career in its proto-conceptual repetitions in several post-Marxisms. These reappearances make up the margins from which this Marxian word is highlighted and stares at – not only – me. (Along the lines of problematizing recurrence – the impossibility to fulfil the tasks of history “ohne Rückerinnerung”, “without recalling” – Marx’s bohème could join the ranks of the unreliable Gespenster opposed to production-inspiring Geister in the Brumaire and other Marx classics and, ultimately, of Derrida’s Specters of Marx.)

Jacques Rancière’s 1983 reconstruction of Marx’s criticism of class (de)composition reads like a parody of Marx’s parody of the Bonapartist parody of history. Rancière highlights humorously the humour – and also the humus: the gardening and geology discourse – at work in Marx’s writing. Drawing on the Lumpenproletariat and its bourgeois counterpart, the “finance aristocracy”, both synonyms of bohème in the Brumaire, Rancière shows that what causes Marx’s indignation is ultimately the “inconsistency of classes as such” which his teleology runs into: a teleology of classes performing their tasks in a dialectics of revolutionized production (Rancière 2004, 95). Marx’s bohème/Brumaire-text features at an early stage of Rancière’s political theory of democracy as a tearing-loose from organic or functionally assigned social identities. In his 2005 conception of populism as the embodiment of politics, Ernesto Laclau references Marx’s work on Lumpenproletariat and bohème and their “distance from the productive process” in unfolding a theorem of heterogeneity. According to Laclau, in the high degree of autonomy of the state vis-a-vis society and in the impossibility to base politics of mobilization on class as a coherent foundation, Marx confronts nothing less than the “emergence of political articulation”. Laclau replaces Marx’s flowery names with the terms outsider and underdog, designating the heterogeneous (instead of functionally integrated) position of a part of the population that performs itself as a militant people through its political articulation (Laclau 2005, 142–53). 

To Rancière’s democratic and Laclau’s populist bohèmes we should add the early fascist bohème of sociologist, philosopher of history and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. In several studies on the bourgeoisie’s turn to the far right, culminating in his study of Nazi and Italian Fascist propaganda, i.e., a politics of mobilization, written in 1936-1938 (but not published because Adorno rejected it for its unreliable Marxism), Kracauer borrows two terms from Marx’s Brumaire: the concept of bonapartism, then current in socialist theories of fascism as a dictatorship that “pretends to stand above the classes” (Kracauer 2011, 371); and the bohème. This is his name for the popular subject of fascism in its early movement stage. “Remnants of the army”, “high-brow writers”, “unemployed”, “young people”: Kracauer’s enumeration, under the umbrella term bohème, of types that, lumped together, make up Mussolini’s and Hitler’s “cliques”, is reminiscent of Marx’s, from which he also quotes the “plünderungslustige Bohème” (Kracauer 2013, 17). So, does Kracauer see Nazis as a rabble of society? No. What he highlights about them, in connection with his view of them as a bohème, is, first, how they resemble “artists” in their conception of politics (propaganda) as an autonomous art of forming masses and even realities. (Kracauer later expands the critique of anti-realism in his film theory.) Second, there is Kracauer’s equation of bohème with his formal (almost proto-Laclauian) usage of the term outsider. Being outsiders relative to a stable (production-derived) organon of classes is Kracauer’s common denominator for the fascist “Faschingsbande”, carnival gang, and for the middle classes, especially the white-collar Angestellten. He theorizes the latter as being “ideologically shelterless” – “dispossessed” and “proletarianized” while constantly worried about their security, repressing the fact that Fordist capitalism has nullified their bourgeois privilege and identity (Kracauer 1963, 99). Middle-class philistines and bohemians (not to be confused with the more recent, politically greenish, fusion of bourgeois and bohemians into bobo’s) make up a non-class to be articulated politically – which fascism did all-too successfully.

Now that the fascist farce partially repeats itself roughly a century after the March on Rome, with right-wing populism and nationalist-authoritarian governance on the rise, how can the reiterations of Marx’s bohème serve political diagnostics? (Provided we are mindful of the anti-migrant and heterosexist stereotyping which the term historically implied.) Bohème can highlight differences between authoritarian rule well-established in a nationalist law & order-mode, and early, genuine movemental stages of right-wing anti-institutional mobilization. At these stages, colourful warrior types – from Germany’s AfD, mutated from a club of monetarist professors into a movement led by nationalist revanchists and paranoiacs, to Trump – rise to power; without keeping it for long unless they trade their bohème charisma for the habitus of “security” technocrats.

Big Data

The reality of today’s dividual data sets – enormous accumulations of data that can be divided, recomposed and valorized in endless ways – is one of worldwide streams, of deterritorialization and of machinic expansion, most succinctly expressed as Big Data. Social media such as Facebook need the self-division of individual users just as intelligence agencies continue to retain individual identities. Big Data, on the other hand, is less interested in individuals and just as little interested in a totalization of data, but is all the more so in data sets that are freely floating and as detailed as possible, which it can dividually traverse – as an open field of immanence with a potentially endless extension. These enormous multitudes of data want to form a horizon of knowledge that governs the entire past and present, and so is also able to capture the future.

The collection of data by economic and state actors, especially secret services, insurance, and banking industries, has a long tradition, but it has acquired a completely new quality with machine-readability and the machinic processing of the data material. This quality applies not only to credit-rating agencies or intelligence agencies, but also to all areas of networked everyday life, all partial data of individual lives, about children, divorces, debts, properties, consumption habits, communication behaviors, travelling habits, internet activities, movements in real space, whereabouts, health, fitness, eating habits, calorie consumption, dental care, credit card charges, cash-machine use, to name only a few. Refrigerators, ovens, thermostats, smart-guide toothbrushes, intelligent toilet bowls, networked offices, networked kitchens, networked bedrooms, networked bathrooms, networked toilet facilities – all controllable via smartphone, all accessible via cloud. This machinic data can potentially be combined, for instance for the logistics of individual thing-movements, and made accessible according to dividual logics.

In order to traverse, divide and recombine these data, cooperation is needed from those who were previously called consumers. Participation means the most comprehensible free (especially in the sense of unpaid) data exchange possible, not only sharing existing data, but also producing new data. Data valorization plays out in the terrain of externalizing production processes and activating consumers, as it has been intensified since the 1990s in all economic areas. Crowds, multitudes, dispersed masses – their modes of existence and living are captured, stretched, appropriated and exploited beyond the realm of paid labor. Scoring, rating, ranking, profiling. Consumers who are activated and generate value with their activity do not have to be paid. The open source model of program development by the crowd has meanwhile become established as a business model and spread to all economic sectors. Free labor in free association (as Marx once wrote), but to the advantage of the enterprises of the New Economy.

Everything is free, but one who does not pay is not a consumer but a product. The fact that this is now widely known hardly seems to open up opportunities for change in the modes of subjectivation. The daily work of the ‘users’ in the social network consists of adding more and more details to the image of themselves and their social environment and thus – posting after posting and like after like – creating an increasingly identifiable target for advertising messages. In the context of accelerated technological developments under conditions of monopolized access to data for a few corporations, and an increasingly exclusive focus on valorisation, new communication structures have emerged. Meanwhile, the bourgeois public has taken note of this with some horror, and under the slogan of ‘fake news’, as it became clear that the usual agnostics of valorization – be it advertising for billionaires with political ambitions, for soft drinks or EU-exits – becomes much more effective in highly efficient and at the same time less regulated and opaque structures.

Under similar auspices of intensified valorization, machine learning is developing, a recent trend that has led to a quantum leap in the development of statistical approaches to artificial intelligence, not least through the opportunities created by big data. The ‘intelligence’ of the software is no longer implemented according to abstract categories and/or sample data; the algorithms themselves (although at the moment still mostly ‘supervised’) generate their logical structures using patterns that they recognize in huge data sets. The advances in artificial intelligence usually accompanying debates on human and machine intelligence have now receded into the background in the face of the massive labor market problems that these technologies will cause in the given economic system.

All of this calls for a reappropriation of the present that carries us to the other side of dividual economy. How, then, can economy be envisioned as not based on individual property, on the dis/possession of each and every individual, but as using the abstract-dividual line to compose new forms of sociality? An economy that implies forms of distribution other than dividends as claims of shareholders: a dividend beyond the realm of measures and metrics, of modularizing and modulating, of number and code, where that which is to be distributed is not well-ordered by “common sense,” as the “best distribution,” but rather as an ever broader and wider distribution, spread, dispersion, proliferation of social wealth?