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    imaginal machines: an interview with Stevphen Shukaitis

    | 2006-09-23 | 11:19
    temos: ENGLISH

    On May 2006 Stevphen Shukaitis well known activist and participant in the range of various projects (such as New York based publisher Autonomedia) was visiting Vilnius. We caught up with him in Vilnius milk bar and talked about activism, media and life in general.

    Tadas Šarūnas: Could you put the projects you are involved into the context of the social movements in NYC or US in general?

    Stevphen Shukaitis: A country like the US, which has almost 300 million people, it’s really difficult to generalize as a whole. In a city like New York, which has 8 million people, there are many activist projects, forms of radical art, etc… there’s so much going on it is impossible to summarize briefly. In terms of what I have been doing, there are several major areas to which I am connected, which are in general media and publishing, political organizing, popular education, and music and art coordination. In terms of music and arts coordination I’ve been involved in Ever Reviled Records, which is worker owned and run record label that puts out countercultural music: punk rock, hip-hop, folk, and potentially any other genre – bringing together artists from different genres that have radical political orientations. Doing that with music at the same time developing models of economic democracy. But by that I mean not just speaking about democracy, but collective ownership that does not depend on anything like command, centralized planning, or following leaders. It’s about trying to find a connection between political goals and aims and how that is embodied through what we are doing. So in addition to putting out releases by various musicians, we also organize workshops speaking about economic democracy and worker collectives. We also have been involved in several solidarity efforts involving worker collectives, such as work with a group of unemployed workers and collectives in Argentina.

    Secondly, I was involved in producing a show on WBAI, the community radio station in New York City, called Rise Up Radio. That it was a community station is very important, because in the US most of radio stations are run by major corporations, which are not very open to other kinds of voices or other kinds of political views. The spectrum of political debate and discussion in the US is very narrowly circumscribed. Thus it becomes hard to articulate any sort of views that do not fit in within this discourse. There’s an argument that Noam Chomsky makes, that anyone who wants to express a different kind of idea, you can’t just do it in ten seconds, because if you want to say something that doesn’t agree with the way something has been framed and discussed so far, you can’t do it in that format. To express other ideas you need to lay out other underlying arguments and frames for them, and that’s why community radio and projects as Indymedia are important, because they create a space where people can develop other kind of ideas and frames of references. And this is an important part of creating a discourse that explains the connections between why there’s a so-called “war on terror” that have only a tenuous relation with the ones give, what is the connection between war on Iraq and cut being made on healthcare and education. It’s about creating sort of space for other voices to be heard.

    Third general of activity branch I’m involved with what would generally be called popular education, which involves organizing different forms of discussions, workshops, and similar events. How do ideas for creating a people world emerged and circulate? They are developed among people through discussion and exchange, which is not something that just occurs magically but rather is cultivated. So it’s a question of creating forums and spaces for these kinds of discussions to emerge. And so I’ve been involved in planning on going popular education events and forums at Bluestockings, a local infoshop, as well as helping to plan larger forums and events such as the Life After Capitalism gathering in 2004 and the New York City Social Forum. Recently this has also involved editing a book called Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization with my friend and comrade David Graeber for AK Press.  The main focus of the book is bringing together essays about participatory forms of knowledge creation and social research that are a part of political organizing. Often times it seems that people who work in progressive and radical research and writing in academic settings often find themselves simply talking to – or just talking about – people involved in political organizing, rather than working with them. And so this book emerged out of discontent with how that sort of dynamic plays out and wanting to bring together a collection of materials on how such could occur differently. The book contains 21 essays from activist researchers from all over the world who are involved in political research, including fairly well known writers such as Antonio Negri and Colectivo Situaciones.

    And the last thing is Autonomedia, which is a radical publisher based in Brooklyn since 1983 and that started out as a translator of various writings of French poststructuralist thought and something which could be called post ’68 thought, or the kind of ideas that came after political uprisings of 1960’s, and that coming together with New York City art and punk rock scene. It’s an interesting mix of politics, art, and general counterculture craziness. Probably the best known books published by Autonomedia is TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zones, by Hakim Bey, as well as titles by people like the Critical Art Ensemble, Midnight Notes, Silvia Federici, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and many others. Over 100 different titles all together.

    And so all of these particular areas are connected to each other in a general project of building a radical counterculture, bringing together communities of resistance, through different the means of art, media, political organizing, and publishing. It’s about connecting different ideas, people, and campaigns – and creating different patterns and forms of their circulation. I’ve been in them while being connected to what could be described as the broadly anticapitalist antiauthoritarian left in New York City, taking part in things like planning demonstrations against the World Economic Forum and the war in Iraq. And that’s an important point to emphasize – how all of these projects and efforts are connected with a larger political process and overall effort, though coordinated from below of course.

    TŠ: You said that Autonomedia has debates about turning from entirely publishing activities to wider practices. What are the possible ways and new forms of media that Autonomedia could take and what are the possible merits of this turn?

    SSh: I am not speaking for the whole collective – so this is just my personal response. But that’s where a project like Interactivist Info.Exchange site comes from. That’s the web based forum and news site that Autonomedia runs in collaboration with folks from ABC No Rio, a local social center, and Interactivist, a tech collective. For example you print a book, you print a few thousand copies, and they get circulated and people read them. But with something like Interactivist Info.Exchange page, it can get usually something like 40,000 page views per day. And in a sense that means that it can be a better forum for getting things out there, for getting ideas in places where people will find them; a forum like that brings together material with a potential to circulate much more broadly and quickly than most print projects could ever dream of. That’s one way of finding different patterns of circulation for ideas. But that’s also not to say that web based publications could or should replace print books either. There have also been several projects that incorporated music and other audio to go along with a book, or to turn part of a book into a joint musical and spoken word project. My impression is that there has been a desire to produce multiple forms of media, from print to audio and video, which has existed since the beginning of the project. The problem with that being that different forms of media often require very different sets of skills, resources, knowledges, and equipment – although that has been changing in drastic ways over the past ten years or so. But that means that there’s always a question how much you can branch out without becoming spread too thinly across different areas. So I would say that it really isn’t a turn to it as much as a desire that had existed for some time that has had some problems coming to fruition because of some of the practicalities, but it’s something that will be looked into more in the future.

    TŠ: Nobody doubts that new media has benefited activists of all kind. But could you tell what are limitations of using cyberspace and is it possible to draw a line between practices where you start depending on more constant interaction in a real space?

    SSh: First of all I am not quite sure what people mean with terms such as new media. In other words, I am not sure at what point they are “new” media. Are records new media? Is a book printed with distributed digital technologies, or maybe print on demands printing, new media? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems when there emerges new forms of communications is that there is an initial burst utopian excitement about that form of media. Last year I was reading the book Q by Luther Blissett, a collective name used by several authors in Italy. At one point of the book, which is a part historical account of some true events and part historical fiction based around them, they describe a bunch of radical printmakers in the 1500s who, while printing copies of other books, discover that they have small sheets of paper that always seem to fly away. Well, they ask themselves, what should we do with these? One of the characters decides that they could take the sheets and print on them relatively simple political messages and use them to distribute them to the peasants. And then another character declares, “Oh, yes. We’ll call them flyers!” I don’t know if this part of the story was true but it is a great little story. And it illustrates a larger theme of the book, which is about the kind of political radicalism that came about in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the German Peasant War, and other related events. So one could say for the radicals of the 1520s that print matter was “new media,” for them, given that historical point.

    But back to our current era, it’s really a question of whether and how different media forms allow for communication and the circulation of ideas, and how that happens. How do these different media forms relate to political organizing? And what do they make possible? With the Internet ideas can be spread much broader and much quicker. The first way is I think that a lot of people involved in activism in the middle of nineties became aware of the power of the Internet was as it was used to circulate news about events in Chiapas, Mexico with the Zapatistas, which was quite inspiring for many people in the US as well as around the world. It was a striking instance of how something that is far away is in some ways connected with the reality and imagination of struggles where you are. But there are quite obvious downsides to digital technologies, which became readily apparent to anyone who spends a great deal of time using them. You can easily find yourself spending more and more hours behind the computer and posting stories to websites, editing audio, and so forth – and find that your back has become computer-shaped. Your back hurts. Or you get repetitive motion injuries or something like that. And it is quite alienating and it is easy to fall into a trap like that because you can become so wrapped up in those sorts of things that other forms of human interaction get neglected, which is never healthy. If using digital technologies becomes a substitute rather than a tool for interaction, then that seems to me to be the dividing line of their usefulness. Of course that’s a general guideline rather than something specific, but that’s the measure I tend to use myself.

    TŠ: As I understood Autonomedia started with translations from French. I wonder what importance is of connecting local and regional activist networks to a global one? What should remain as local practice bearing in mind that there are costs of maintaining international links?

    SSh: The reason Autonomedia for this is that Autonomedia started in conjunction with the journal and book series project called Semiotext(e), which was started by Sylvere Lotringer, a professor of French at Columbia University. He made it his task to introduce to the US figures from French philosophy such Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari. And Autonomedia and Semiotext(e) in some ways come into full bloom through joint efforts and sort of overlap between from the early 1980’s to mid 1990’s, although I am not sure which is exact date or how all the projects are separated. That sort of collaboration was important because people in the US were also greatly inspired by ideas coming out of France during late 1960’s from the Situationists such as Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, and as well as people coming out of the autonomous movements in Italy, such as Toni Negri and Sergio Bologna. And so the ideas and practices coming out of these movements spread and circulate in different ways. For instance, Situationist ideas also had a huge impact with people involved in projects like Black & Red, which published the first English version of Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle, and people involved in anarchist networks centered around groups like Fifth Estate and Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed.

    In terms of local struggles in a place like New York City, actually is difficult to say what is specifically a “local” struggle – because there are so many people coming from so many different places around the world. What is actually specifically a New York thing – it could be connected to anywhere. In global cities like New York, Tokyo, and London, there are major flows of people and ideas. What is typically local is hard to say. It seems it’s hard to say what is the global. The things are overlapping and in a way you can’t just separate. There have been some projects like the Autonomedia Autonomadic Bookmobile, which was a traveling van that brought together amazing circus and vaudeville performances with the selling of all kinds of subversive literature, which was a great combination. Unfortunately that project is no longer going on, and Hurricane Katrina destroyed the van.

    TŠ: One of the most repeated criticisms to activists of all kinds is that they don’t propose constructive proposals about possibilities of change. How it is possible to answer to this kind of criticism?

    SSh: I can see why this question gets raised because if you’re staying opposed the operation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the existence of the state, and forth – that is kind of the question: what would you do instead? How could the world operate otherwise? The problem is that to a large degree it is also understandable and reasonable to not want to answer in detail, to create recipes for cooks of the future. If you want to create world that is planned by the community through forms of social cooperation that world emerges through creating those forms of cooperation themselves. In other words, to spell out things in advance, to create blueprints, is in many ways shutting down that process rather than starting it. But nonetheless it is helpful to have general sorts of principles and aim in mind, for instance ideas about community self-determination and direct and economic democracy. And when you phrase things like that they become much easier for people to relate to. After all, most people enjoy having control of their own lives. Also, I like to make the argument, as many have before, that one can see the seeds of a new world to come contained within the practices and relationships created as part of political organizing. In other words, alternatives are created as people find other ways to relate to each other – to build forms of social cooperation and community, and they form the basis of another way of living. And this is an open process, one that is never finished, and always changing. It’s more about reinventing the process of democratic engagement. Also, as a thought, I wrote an article called “An Ethnography of Nowhere: Notes Towards a Re-envisioning of Utopian Thinking” for the journal Social Anarchism a few years ago that explored this question and it’s available on my website if people are interested.

    TŠ: What do you think is the possible or existing role of academia in developing radical and critical thought?

    SSh: In the US there was moment in 60’s where there seemed to be a lot of different kinds of ideas developing on campuses. It was this general ferment that eventually led to the formation of departments of cultural studies, and a much greater emphasis on issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. That seemed to be in general quite positive. Over past years it seems to be more of a, let’s say, reactionary right wing transformation that has been occurring. So basically there was a relatively short period of time when the space of the university was opened up for what seemed like much more interesting and liberatory purposes, but in many ways that moment has seemed to pass, although this is obviously a bit of a generalization. Universities have always been connected with the structure of different forms of social power and political power. But it seems during recent times that the university system is general has become much more directly involved in creating different forms of knowledge and information, research and development, that is deeply embedded within the workings of corporate power and the state apparatus.

    As for the usefulness of the space of the university for radical movements. Hmm…. I think is possibly useful that people can use university space to crate various access to resources or use the space itself. For instance, in a place like New York City it’s difficult to find space a place to have a meeting – and so many groups use the students lounge at the City University Graduate Center Building. It is a question of finding a place to open it for other uses, which are not necessarily those intended for them. So I’d say yes in that aspect, as well as in being useful in creating and developing ideas and ways to reflective collectively on what is going on in the world, as long as it is realized that such efforts are a part of a larger process and do not have any pretensions, implicitly or explicitly held, to some sort of leadership role or position of power. So, yes, it is limited possibly useful aspect. But this is an open question, and one that I’ve never completely resolved for myself, or probably ever will. It’s one of the questions that the book David and I edited for AK Press, Constituent Imagination, was hoping to address in some ways. There’s also an issue of the journal ephemera  that I put together with Eleni Karamali and Stephen Dunne on the theme of “Inscribing Organized Resistance” that deals with the same issues as well.

    TŠ: What are the ways and problems of translating critical thought to daily language?

    SSh: That can definitely be a problem. I’ve always thought of it as a question of finding ways to express the core ideas in ways that resonate with the audience one is addressing. It’s not a case of thinking that one can develop a way of phrasing things or expressing concepts that is perfectly clear and would be understood by anyone and people everywhere. That’s just simply not the case. People have wildly varied and different backgrounds and experiences, so it’s a question of expressing ideas in a way that meets them where they are.

    It is not necessarily saying that things must be simply because that’s not always the case. For instance when I was in Argentina, talking to people from unemployed workers movement there, they had developed quite sophisticated discussions about the nature of autonomy and horizontal relations that seemed way ahead of any of the discussion I’ve often found in the US. But that kind of discussion didn’t just come out of the blue, it was built up over years and years as part of their on going organizing and community building. So it wasn’t a question of translating critical thought into daily language, rather critical thought was constantly built up as part of their activities, and they came to borrow concepts and ideas as well as develop ones that resonated with their experiences. Thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze often get dismissed as being overly arcane or hard to understand; but I’ve also met people involved in organizing against prisons who find that their ideas fit perfectly with what they’re trying to do and are quite helpful for them articulating that. Understandings are evolved through different events, different kinds of experiences. So perhaps rather than translating critical thought into daily language it’s more a question of translating critical experiences into thought, and then how that informs one experiences and practices.

    TŠ: I guess it’s hard to reflect on local situation here in Lithuania because you’re here just few days, but if you have something to share it would be interesting to hear.

    SSh: One thing noticeable here is the lingering ghost of Soviet politics and how that affects various things here in different ways, for instance in terms of the names such as there being an “artist’s union” rather then association, which to me seems to reflect the history of how politics was thought about before. I’ve also been told by several people that Marxist thought as well as anarchism is still associated with the Soviet times, which strikes me as quite strange since the last time I checked historically the Soviets were more intent of killing the anarchists than anything else. I mean, Kronstadt wasn’t a picnic by any means. Also that lingering memory of Soviet times seems to affect things like people having a negative association with protesting, which is remembered more as something that one participated because you had to rather than an action that was more often than not elsewhere opposed to the actions of the government. The idea of there being a state sponsored protest is something that does not make sense to me coming from the US. It is something that is totally outside my experiences. I suppose that’s what makes things like the development of the Critical Mass, and maybe the Pro-Test Lab around Lietuva cinema last year, very important – because they are the beginnings of the formation of another kind of radical politics that hopefully can break with those negative associations. They create joyous spaces where other possibilities and political relationships can emerge sometimes without even necessarily being seen as political at all. This sometimes can be good because if government authorities do not see something as political, as not being a threat at all, they are much less likely to do anything about it – and therefore it is possible for there to be greater proliferations and connections made without having to deal with state repression. Overall there’s a much different political history and background here informing political than what exists in the US, which isn’t very surprising obviously. I find that quite interesting how it plays out. But as you said I have been here just few days so I can’t add anything else except that I would like to come back and to find out more.

    TŠ: One problem is what could be called a Capitalist-Soviet dichotomy. If you criticize the system you are risking to be named as pro-Soviet. As far as I know there was such kind of problem in US. During the cold war there were strong anti-Communist currents and it was a risk to be named a Communist. What are the ways to avoid those naming?

    SSh: First of all you are right that there is very marked legacy of red baiting and anti-Communism in US. There was an anti-sedition act passed in 1902, an act that prohibited immigration of anarchists communists into the United States, which I think was still on the books until 1996. So you know there is hall history of fear mongering around radicals, from the Palmer Raids and deportations in the 1920s to the McCarthy Era Communist Witch Hunts in the 1950s. And this sort of things continues until today where a very common rhetorical move against those involved in radical politics is to try to construe them as having something to do with the Soviet Union, which since the 1990s in the US is generally used as a short hand or place holder to indicate in general a politics of the left that failed. But in some ways this alleged dichotomy wasn’t much of one at all. I mean, what’s the difference between one day you have to call your boss “boss” and the next day it’s “comrade,” or more honestly “comrade boss.” Same shit, new names. It was much more like how Guy Debord described it, a conflict between the “diffused spectacle” of forces grouped under the heading of Western capitalism and the “concentrated spectacle” of those centered around the Soviet bloc, which functioned more as a form of state capitalism than anything else. In other words, two versions of the same thing, two versions of power being concentrated in very few people’s hand and almost every one else getting caught of the middle of this ridiculous charade.

    So that’s why I tend to try to discuss politics from the angle of undermining forms of social domination, regardless of where they originate. It’s not just about economics, politics, gender, race, class, the media, and so forth… but how they all relate, and finding different ways to relate and create community and social relations through different methods, practices, and ideas. In almost any situation where there is posed a question, which often functions like a threat, of “ether or,” there usually are many options in between. The question is finding ways to articulate these other possibilities, many of which don’t have a name, but exist.    


    Links and More Information:

    Re//fusing Structures (Stevphen’s website): http://www.refusingstructures.net/
    Autonomedia: http://www.autonomedia.org/
    Constituent Imagination: http://www.constituentimagination.net/
    Ephemera: http://www.ephemeraweb.org/
    Interactivist Info.Exchange: http://info.interactivist.net/ 
    Ever Reviled Records: http://www.everreviledrecords.com/ 
    Rise Up Radio: http://www.riseupradio.org/

    temos: ENGLISH |

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