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On the Relational Transformation of Law through Common Sense, via Objects and Movements | FIELD

On the Relational Transformation of Law through Common Sense, via Objects and Movements

On the Relational Transformation of Law through Common Sense, via Objects and Movements

Marc Herbst

Our world is unruly, and this unruliness varies in specific relations to neo-fascist and technocratically-informed capitalist violence and climate changes. I have been interested in how cultural objects, globally distributed through logistical and mediatic structures, that participate in the governance of our contemporary world, can otherwise facilitate unruly, bottom-up social relations that sit beside or outside of these methods of formal governance. I wonder about the possibilities embodied in these objects that might, when properly understood, help move this unruliness in expressly progressive directions. This essay demonstrate how singular artistic or activist objects in themselves have no unique capacity to magically transform things, or to produce historical breaks because of something in their objective nature as autonomous objects without relation. Rather, I show how muddy co-production of meaning in context and within a given set of practices is part and parcel of transformation. I wish to demonstrate some of the constellational balancing that occurs between objects and the relations that seem to make them meaningful, and to think a bit about objects and relations. Thus, I wonder about the natures of what can be conceived of as autonomous objects, as things that assist people to find specific relations and thus a sense of meaning and anchoring, in and towards change. By “conceptually autonomous,” [1] I understand that all things are bound in relational constellations with other things that help them arrive at a given point, where they are recognized by someone as being uniquely meaningful.

So, what follows are several reflections on this topic, framed by a discussion of Spain’s Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (the PAH, or la Plataforma de Afectados Por La Hipoteca in Spanish) and its relation to particular cultural objects that were generated elsewhere but appear meaningful in the context of the PAH. Consciously or not, these objects were utilized by the PAH in transforming their members’ financial, social and psychological situations and their shared world. The discussion focuses on the Barcelona PAH chapter that I observed on-and-off from 2013 to 2015. I was there witnessing how this activist group facilitated common social transformations from below. I was there because I was interested in the concept of the multitude. I found “the multitude” to be useful not as a reference to a specific set of people but rather as a description of general human being in variable relation to any governing forces. [2] This essay only minimally describes the contextually-particular activities, relations and conditions that the PAH was able to politically organize. Nevertheless, I am able to hint at things the PAH utilized to helped re-organize common sense understandings around the right to housing, and a bit of what it means to be human. My understanding of “common sense” relates to the multitude; while law is proper to governance and in some diametrical relation to the multitude, common sense is the multitudinous manner of self-regulation that occurs sometimes beside but always outside of formal law. It is its contingent binding with the development of common sense that makes the PAH notable; its exemplary praxis between the activist and the artistic procedures they employ to contextually alter common sense, common behavior and law.

By “objects,” this essay means any thing that might be conceptually independent; a rock, or a song or word, or expressed feeling or artwork. This is an expansive definition of objects, as it includes both material and immaterial things. The circulation of things through mental or physical production to distribution via real or virtual networks highlights the objectifiable nature of most anything today. The PAH can be seen as an object. My writing about the group participates in their objectification; it abstracts them, transferring concepts associated with them from Spain’s complex sets of relations into a singular linguistic object, “the PAH,” capable of traveling to readers, who will somehow imagine and relate to it. [3] I assume that here, the average reader relates to the PAH because of their general comprehensibility as an abstract object rather than through any actual experience with it.

This essay identifies objects through the cultural, human-facing elements within them. Their ‘human face’ consists of those aspects within them that make them apprehensible–elements that distinguish them as singular objects from the muck of the world in which they are embedded and out of which they are crafted. This apprehensibility also makes them cultural things, for culture refers to those things that facilitate people’s relations in the world; conceptually and procedurally. Culture humanizes things, if “to be human” is to be somehow understood or humanly activated, even if only as an idea. The cultural elements of a rock are those things in a stone that communicate its stoniness, that say, “Hear me. I am a stone, not a daisy.” Among many things that make them cultural, groups like the PAH demonstrate their cultural meaning through their consequential activity. What is meaningful, culturally, relates to people’s capacities to organize themselves in relation—we organize with and around objects that appear to be good or bad, or because they prove to us to be effective, like a programmer’s guide, or because we understand them to be like uranium and know to avoid them.

“People organize in relation—that is, they feel and pattern and adjust in relation to things both in and out of focus.” Schematic drawing by Marc Herbst.

People organize in relation—that is, they feel and pattern and adjust in relation to things both in and out of focus. People organize in relation to the sun and the wind and the rain, and that jerk that lives up the street, and that new app that makes shopping easier. Relationship is a key concept for this essay. To be in relation suggests being in some contingent connection with something else; characterized by any preposition: with, towards, besides, against, in ignorance of, however. [4] Relationship suggests a contradictory stability but also an active and varying connection that somehow matters. At the core of this essay, in contradistinction to the idea of the autonomy of objects, is relation–which is sprawling and formally necessary for things to exist, but also unstable. By formally necessary, I mean to say that it is clear that without the hands which make them, a ball could not exist. By unstable, I mean to say that it is also clear that the maker of the ball’s hands needn’t be there for the ball to continue its existence. While the idea of the autonomous object suggests an object that has been refined from what it is encumbered by, in order to stand alone as its essential self–the idea of relationality focuses on the indeterminacy of any matter at play. The matter at play sets up any number of possible ways of relational and individual development that seem particularly foolish to predetermine, yet are so often generally predictable. Relationality suggests that there are at least two things at play: from the perspective of one of those things the play the two things are 1) whether one should relate to the other at all and 2) in what ways they should relate. [5]

On the PAH and Speculative Creative Work

For many years, Spain’s economy was organized in such a way that state debt would be outsourced to individual Spaniards as private debt, transferred through the mechanisms of personal home loans. [6] Spain’s national economic policy was structured for decades around home construction. Its constitutionally guaranteed right to housing [7] was utilized as a justification for channeling people into home ownership rather than public housing, of which there was very little. [8] By 2006, 84 percent of the population were registered as homeowners. [9] Poor people owned small flats and rich people owned large homes with land and property. This policy created a situation such that in 2006, the average young home-owner was paying 67 percent of their income towards housing costs, with the average in Barcelona at 79.5 percent. [10] Such was the state that when the 2007/2008 financial crisis hit, it affected people commonly across social divides. Both the rich and the poor went bankrupt. The Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (The PAH) emerged as a social movement capable of responding to the particular characteristics of the mortgage crisis that developed on the backs of Spaniards when the state refused to provide them relief, even as they bailed out the banks. Spain’s unique bankruptcy system made it virtually impossible to escape from debt once one entered bankruptcy, and it was on a wave of popular anger around these fact that the PAH rose to national attention.

The PAH is a nation-wide movement of Spanish people whose lives have been affected by the mortgage crisis. It includes renters and homeowners who face displacement and/or poverty because of their inability to pay off or afford home loans or monthly rent. It was founded in 2009 in Barcelona. At its peak, the group had more than 200 autonomously run local chapters processing the accounting and legal facts of individual’s debt, providing support through legal proceedings and organizing eviction defenses in cases where people were being foreclosed upon or evicted. I spent time there between 2013 and 2015 with the Barcelona chapter, a cross-class and cross-race group composed of renters and bankrupt homeowners and small landlords; a group of poor to formerly upper-middle class individuals of Spanish or European heritage, or born beyond the European Continent. Throughout my research in Spain, one thing was clear; the PAH’s effectiveness was reflected in the significant number of evictions and foreclosures they were able to halt. They operated as an open group with an open door, greeting new people coming to their first meeting in order to discuss their own financial crisis with a statement like, “Tell them (the bankers) that you’re with the PAH and you won’t stand for this kind of treatment.”

By the time I was conducting my research, the PAH appeared like a powerful object, capable of striking fear in banker’s hearts. Every week, I saw more than twenty new people with financial problems packing the already full meeting space in order to find support for their personal issues. As far as I know, all of the evictions and foreclosures I heard discussed were eventually halted. Mortgaged Lives, published in 2014 and authored by Ada Colau and Adria Alemany, two of the four PAH’s co-founders, reflects on how the PAH came to be a lively workshop through which people transformed their impoverished reality into something else. The authors contrast the facts of the PAH’s immediate successes with V de Vivienda’s less clearly immediate results. V de Vivienda is an activist/art project organized around housing issues that preceded the PAH. V de Vivienda was a collaboration of artists, activists, and NGOs–Colau and former members of the artist collective Las Agencias [11] participated along with others. Begun around 2006, V de Vivienda focused on the aspiration of home ownership and the facts of housing in the pre-crisis period, including difficulties in purchasing a home even though housing is guaranteed in the Spanish Constitution. In addition to the activist gatherings that they hosted/created, they produced consciously sharp political imagery. In summarizing the overall impact of their project in a few sentences,[12] Alemany and Colau observe, “It’s not that V de Vivienda said anything new, but that it said it in another way, renewing the language and the codes used by more traditional social movements. Without a doubt, one of the principal merits of the movement was its capacity to connect with public opinion through direct, communicative campaigns.”

V de Vivienda’s singular motto, “You’re not going to have a home in your whole fucking life,” contrasted sharply with Spain’s speculative housing bubble, which was concurrent with V de Vivienda’s activity. Their message contradicted the then-widely promulgated idea that homeownership was within everyone’s grasp. This was an aspiration the state supported by directing funds to banks for this purpose. Within this bubble, Colau and Alemany identify a core weakness of V de Vivienda’s project. “In the case of V de Vivienda, the transformation of these young people into social activists was nearly a seamless transition. But were older people affected by the mortgage crisis capable of going beyond their individual cases and getting involved in the political process? Could victims become activists?”. At the time of V de Vivienda’s activity, Spain’s capitalist economy still appeared to be booming, and as Colau and Alemany suggest, the social need for their activity appeared speculative. By speculative, I mean that beyond a certain group, their activist and cultural expressions around the nature of the housing market did not seem to match existing socio-economic conditions or horizons. Their critique seemed to find little way to gel with common sense, but rather seemed to just be playing at the margins of reality. To many people, V de Vivienda appeared to be addressing an imaginary problem, even if they weren’t. Perhaps over time their creative and rhetorical work would somehow come to inform peoples’ appreciation of housing’s economic and political realities, but in their time, this shift did not popularly register.

Image 1. A flyer from the V de Vivienda Movement and an image from one of their manifestations. Circa 2007. Image courtesy V de Vivienda.

More than with V de Vivienda, the common stresses produced by an actual crisis shaped the organization of the PAH. This in turn, contributed to the PAH’s ability to engage a heterogenous group of people affected by mortgages. Through affected people’s participation in the PAH, the PAH came to be a group that could eventually comprehend and communicate how common people’s lives had, and would be, affected by governmental failure. The PAH’s ability to do so is partially built upon relational techniques that V De Vivienda developed prior to the widely felt housing crisis. The facts of the crisis and the work that the PAH did to articulate itself as the group capable of responding to it attest to this. The Barcelona PAH developed ways to encourage people to encounter it as an object capable of transforming their victimized subjectivity towards other relational constellations; towards other ways of thinking, being and feeling. This is a contemporaneous observation from my field notes.

January 2015: The PAH facilitator begins the gathering with a routine explanation of her experience with the group. “I was upset, and so I got involved with the PAH. Here is a place where I can let lose my tears, begin to talk realistically about the banks, a place where we can cry. Here we can begin to talk person-to-person because we all know what we are talking about. We started in 2009; in 2013, we started the popular initiatives to change the laws by gathering 1,500,000 signatures. All we do is fight against this law because it is unjust. The bank has so many empty houses. Within the PAH, I am welcomed. I can get empowered and find encouragement here. The banks aren’t interested in my health, with my spirit.” The facilitator’s stirring invocation is met with applause and ends with shouts; “Sí, se puede!”

Temporally, V De Vivienda had neither the intention or opportunity to take on the capacious burden of elaborating ways to care for the psychological, narratival, economic and actual housing needs of people impacted by state socio-economics and the housing market failure. The crisis that would eventually express itself through psychological, narratival, economic and housing-based affects had not yet made itself so clear.

The PAH, General Intellect and Transformational Practices

Rather than playing with the concept of home ownership, the PAH played with the conceptual object of the right to have a roof over one’s head–the common right to be housed. This simple distinction between “the possibility of home ownership” versus “the right to housing,” is related to, but ultimately not the core difference between, how they managed their activities. Rather, a more fundamental difference has to do with how the various PAH groups differently connected to, and made themselves capable of reaching through and articulating relations in, the world. Retrospectively, reflecting on the nature of their total practices, the PAH could be described as a form of politically oriented, community-attentive, social practice. V de Vivienda could be defined by its singular rhetorical/mediatic expressions, which it scattered throughout the world via mediatizing form. The PAH played with relations to socially organize around housing, while V de Vivienda seems to have produced expressive objects intended for communicative use around the subject of housing.

Image 2. Schematic drawing by Marc Herbst.

Relational play was an essential part of the Barcelona PAH’s expansive development across the city’s social terrain, and was part-and-parcel of its intervention into common sense definitions around the right to housing. Because their relational play involved play with objects’ social and legal boundaries, the PAH help us discuss how objects are things open to consideration and re-interpretation. Social movement is made by being attentive to how things participate in transforming social relations within the wider world. Notably, though, as the example below demonstrates, the not-extraordinary context and process through which such play occurs makes these relational developments between people and objects appear simply like common activities, guided mostly by the negotiation of common sense.

What follows is an excerpt from my field notes taken during a PAH civil disobedience training in 2015. The training was attended by a diverse group of people—young and old, of European and non-European descent, female and male. The training brings objects to bear through linguistic work and by actually utilizing things through the mundane process of working together. This excerpt demonstrates one of the performance-based methods that the PAH utilizes. Abstractly, the linguistic and process work can be understood as occurring within the conceptual/linguistic sphere that Marx refers to as the general intellect. [13] The seemingly pliable things that are subject and object of the training are concept/objects imported from South America and elsewhere, or which have unclear provenance. They include material things like soda bottles and paper, protest techniques like the escrache, organizations like la Caixa bank, and concepts like dignity and what makes someone an asshole.

Barcelona January 30th, 2015, I attended PAH training for a civil disobedience. It was planned as an occupation of an office of the CaixaBank, one of Spain’s largest banks. The CaixaBank had been bailed out by the Spanish Government in 2008 in order to stem the banking crisis; despite the influx of public cash, the PAH understands that Caixa and other banks do not recognize any social responsibility arising from the public bailout. Instead of sharing the forgiveness that the government gave them, the banks remain punitive towards individual debtors . . . The occupation was also in response to the so-named gag-bill making its way through the Spanish government, written to severely limit political speech [14]. The disobedience was also planned to be a part of an international day of action against the private equity firm and investment bank The Blackstone Group.

Upon my arrival at the PAH office for the training, a participatory exercise is occurring. The floor is cleared of chairs. Two groups of people are facing each other, speaking loudly and gesticulating. A facilitator standing on a chair is in front of both groups. The facilitator is trying to institute an order to the conversation by suggesting that both groups listen to the group member she’s passed a soda bottle to–the bottle would be a microphone. Chosen people speak playfully into the bottle as if it might project their voice. Often, others would listen, though often enough it was also just loud and chatty throughout the whole of the room. I’d expected the training to look like other civil disobedience trainings I’d attended with half the group limp on the floor with arms linked while the other half played police. Instead what I encountered was a vivid articulation of the group’s current self-image, expressed as a conversation around the concept of dignity.

That the PAH was essentially dignified is unquestioned. Embodying dignity is a central achievement of the PAH, “The PAH dismantles the stigma associated with the threat of eviction for thousands of people who felt completely isolated and has turned what consumer society considered a personal failure (something to be ashamed of) into dignity and solidarity.” Within meetings, individuals refer to politicians, police and bankers as thieves, liars, cheats, assholes, sons of bitches. The PAH understands the banks’ actions as theft, facilitated by governmental and professional corruption that allows them to pressure and cheat people into making bad decisions. The PAH literally uses the word cheating (“estafa”) as a synonym for the word “bank loan.” In discussion, the utterance of the word banks is often only a breath away from a statement there is no profit with the banks, only theft. Regarding a mortgage in arrears, I hear a PAH member say, “No lawyer is going to solve this. Lawyers will laugh at you because the law doesn’t support you, that is what the PAH does. They would have people prostitute themselves in order to pay a rent or loan. They would have people choose hunger in order to pay back loans[15].” Conversely, The PAH’s advice to anyone facing eviction is that if one cannot pay, one should not pay. Food, medicine, these and other costs come before paying off the banks. Taking care of oneself and one’s family is dignified; prioritizing the banks via the strong arms of the law is to accept their practice of theft and corruption while concurrently being  made their victim.

Specifically, this conversation was aimed at identifying which civil disobedience tactic could be seen as violent and thus below the group’s dignity. “We are dignified. It is they that have no dignity. If it were up to them, they would kick us out of our houses and let us live in boxes on the side of Montjuïc” [16] an older man explained. His was in response to the question of whether or not it’s violent to curse at police. About fifty people are participating, smiling and joking and appreciating the responses of each member to the facilitator’s question. “There’s a difference between calling a policeman a thief and a son of a bitch’” explains a middle-aged woman. “The difference of course is that I don’t know if he’s a son of a bitch, that’s personal. But he’s acts like a thief when he robs me of my home.”

“Is it violent to disturb a bank employee’s working area?” asks the facilitator, this is her next scenario, each one a situation that PAH members might find themselves in during the action. In response to each question, individuals are asked to move toward her left or right, to the extent that they agree or disagree in order to spatially manifest a spectrum of opinion.

“We are more dignified than they. They are less dignified than us. They have dignity as individuals but not as bank employees. My point of view is that to stop someone from working is not violent. It doesn’t hurt anyone but the bank. Making a mess of the office isn’t hurting anyone,” says one woman.

Another activist, a programmer, states, “Paper is a tool of eviction. Its super activist to use it, to empty employees’ desks of it and throw it all around.” A frequent PAH organizer says, “To throw paper around stops things and makes it difficult to work.” Another member disagrees, “Our actions are public. We have to behave.” An older man who joined the PAH to work towards the cancellation of his daughter’s debt says, “It might be violent, but saying it is violent is different from saying I’m not going to do it.”

Those present expound upon the social complexity of a bank occupation. The facilitator explains, “We are engaging in debates. It’s important to make a protocol of actions, but it’s important to go into the action with the knowledge of what we’ve agreed upon means. When we employ specific acts in protest, it’s a form of negotiating; when we act, we also have press, police, and the public present. We don’t want to insult or injure people. Remember, they are employees. I don’t think I personally want to throw papers in their faces, but it’s an established way we do things, throwing papers and making a mess of the files. This is the line of negotiation we are discussing now.”

An older male who I’d never seen before but had clearly been involved with the PAH for some time said “We did many things including emptying garbage cans and scattering the trash around the floors of banks three years ago. We did everything– excuse my language, if we’d found shit, we’d have thrown it in the offices too. Sometimes you need to scream.”

To this, the facilitator responds, “If you have a little power, you’re going to be criminalized. Gandhi said that violence is always unacceptable, but its use might be strategic. Our escraches weren’t violent, but they didn’t work. People didn’t speak well of us, so we don’t use them now.”

A middle-aged woman speaks up. “No, it wasn’t like that; it was a way to turn up the heat. The PAH can do escraches again. We can do escraches with Rajoy (Spain’s then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) for our legislative initiatives. We can do loud escraches or silent ones.”

Image 3. Photo of a meeting occurring in the Barcelona PAH offices, with microphones. Circa 2015. Image courtesy Barcelona PAH.

As a goal of this essay is to discuss the progressive role that independently distributed objects can play in reorganizing relations, let us now discuss some of the objects that the PAH relate to and how these objects arrived at the training to become meaningful. The logistical provenance of object-words like “dignity” and “asshole” bandied about in the meeting are difficult to unearth because tracing the histories of their utterance and their wider etymology would entail a great deal of additional research. However, the nature and histories of more concisely identifiable things, like the plastic bottle and the escrache protest form are easier to discuss.

I am told that knowledge about the escrache protest form that the PAH utilized so successfully in 2013 [17] arrived in Barcelona with the logistical support of the international art world. The Argentina-based Erroristas collective, some of whose video work documents escrache performances during Argentina’s 2001 Economic Crisis, had been in dialog with the educational staff of Barcelona’s MACBA museum, who anecdotally suggested the technique to the PAH. The escrache is a protest form that originated through the Argentine Dirty War with the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, holding up placard photos of their disappeared children. It developed further into a distinct form characterized by the haunting of either the public sphere or the homes of guilty elites with residues and traces of political violence caused by the powerful. Left movements in South and Central America articulated variations on the form as it eventually made its way across the Atlantic to Spain. [18]

That the escrache technique could be imported from South America via a logistical network so intimately bound to neo-liberal relations (the world of fine art),[19] while still maintaining the radical intentions of its creators will be discussed further below. It is the remarkable transformation of the bottle into a microphone described above that will temporarily holds this essay’s focus. Any image a reader has from the words “plastic bottle” is likely true enough to the form of the bottle present in that room—the word alone is suggestive enough to define and regulate the extent to which any reader’s conception varies. That is, the standard reader will know what I am talking about. The connection between the word “plastic bottle” and its image is almost as indisputable as the connection between “stop sign,” what that sign looks like and what sort of activity it requests; these words suggest a law-like adherence to something. And the generic facts of the plastic bottle’s arrival at the PAH training is so mundane it hardly needs mentioning; someone bought some bottled soda, and after drinking it the bottle was left empty on the table. Previously, it had arrived in some shop through the quotidian facts of global capitalism—having been made somewhere and transported somewhere else. Though its shape never fully changes, I am impressed by the ways in which the group transformed this mundane plastic vessel into a microphone. All this demonstrates the transformational powers of relationality with language. It is doubtful that the bottle’s designer ever imagined the object being utilized in this manner. When resting on the table, the bottle looks like a bottle, but in the hands of the facilitator who initiates the conceptual change, it almost just seems different. It is a conceptual transformation that temporally remains until the moment of its immediate use as a microphone ceases. This conjuring is neither an act of chicanery nor blind obedience to the power of suggestion; rather it is a floated suggestion, introduced as a speculative proposition by the facilitator and playfully taken up by the whole of the group.

Theory would suggest that this conceptual transformation occurs within the shared realm of the “general intellect,” a concept that scholars trace back to at least Marx. [20] This realm is shared between PAH members in the way that they share air—the general intellect is there to be utilized as a conceptual commons populated by possible words and ideas. The space is actualized when common talk and conceptual activity occur around any specific things. The term “general intellect” names the always culturally [21] relational conceptual sphere of exchange around what is or could be known and relatable to. Relational play occurs here. The fact that this space can be commonly accessible makes it useful towards common liberation. It is the sphere for social innovation for the needs and interests of social and technical developments. Paolo Virno’s Multitude Between Innovation and Negation (2008) names the general intellect “the social brain” that “precedes the determined rules” that define reality. [22] Virno describes how the general intellect allows for social and technical variation between objective laws and the what seems to be common worldly experiences. With an appreciation of their circumstances, common people can negotiate law-like relations through any variety of objects to understand and readjust their relation to the world, and also what they consider common sense (normal) responses to the world, despite any arbitrary or coercive forms of law and order.

More concretely, remember with the above how V de Vivienda floated objects within a context. Their labor can be said to contribute to the general intellect. However, it contributed to a common context where the general population could not yet appreciate a possible relation to the group’s expressions, thus it did not seem to inspire a transformation of norms that could facilitate different action in relation to home ownership. Though V de Vivienda’s artists and activists may have had the transformation of norms as their goal, their temporal context did not collaborate with them sufficiently to spark such a response (and vice-versa, they did not articulate themselves enough in clear collaboration with the context). Yet they surely contributed to the general intellect that developed the PAH. It took a housing crisis in addition to the work of the PAH to transform common sense toward the idea that to be human suggests a right to shelter. This outcome entailed a transition in common sense, not law–the power of the PAH in this period was such that their activity had won the opinion of the street, while the actual law remained intransigent. Common sense described the group’s near-criminal activity as understandable, legitimate, and positively regulated the group by generally affirming their activities. Yet, until 2015, Spanish law would not bend to the PAH’s demands even though they had overwhelming popular support.

Objects In and For Themselves

Within the realm of the general intellect things like bottles and escraches end up being objects-in-relation because of their capacity to hold attention towards commonly shared meanings or to organize manners and ways for activity. But what of the objects themselves, outside of their being in relation? [23] Theorist Nick Thoburn (2010) defines “communist objects” [24] as objects that have escaped the drudgery of being useful to capitalism. “Use, in this formulation, is what patterns and regularizes the object for iteration in the commodity mode.” Beyond any possible utility, an object may display what Guattari calls the “quasi-animistic speech” of what is bound by its material or abstract composition. This quasi-animalistic speech can seem to run counter to what seems to be culturally human. As stated in this essay’s introduction, to recognize anything in an object is to observe its’ human face in a manner that recognizes it as an object for some reason—seeing it as a stone, path or cliff rather than a blind landscape that one eventually falls out of. The animal spirits of an object are those relatable ways between us and the object that we can just barely relate to via “normal” relation.

Image 4. Some possible voices emerging from an object (e.g. a diamond-shaped piece of metal). Schematic drawing by Marc Herbst.

Thoburn is interested in a more specific relation than just any object’s possible vocality. He conceptualizes a communist nature of the object, and sees that this communist nature is made vocal through its existence within a capitalist world. Communist objects are things whose existence pushes against the brutality inherent in a world that can only see things simply for their exchange- or use-value. The communist object reverberates against this and helps us to more richly experience the world. Thoburn primarily looks at communist objects that can be more simply described as books and magazine. Besides such printed matter, he identifies the community of anti-capitalist readers who support a radical press, and defines the potentiality of communist objects in suspended relation with them. “Communist objects have a fetish character; it expresses a spirit of matter that—in its Sisyphean efforts toward the overcoming of capitalist relations—disturbs and disrupts established regimes of value.” [25] The contingency of the communist object’s relationship to capitalism is that while capitalist accounting consistently orients the general intellect towards profit, the communist object is one thing that is there to knock against this reality and liberate relationality to develop towards other common and particular ends.

Though the escrache was circulated to Spain through the international art market (which shares much with the leftist book market), the concept of the “communist object” seems to adequately explain why the escrache protest maintains its initiator’s radical intentions, despite it being subjected to neo-liberal logistics. While culturally speculative capitalism helped carry the escrache across the ocean, it nevertheless relationally serves as a form to organize human relations counter to current order. This is partially contingent to the object of the escrache itself; it is definitionally a thing that haunts the powerful for common ends. Its potency is also contingent to those who as use it to organize relations counter to, and disruptive of, governing relations. If they use it for other purposes, it is simply and definitionally not an escrache.

While the bottle’s shape is similar to a microphone, it is not simply its definitional shape that stewards its transformation. There is little in the definitional formality of, or literature around, a bottle that facilitates this specific change in form. The bottle could have been a pen, a pebble, an upturned palm or a sock; but here it was definitely a bottle that was transformed. The concept of the communist object does not help us understand its transformation; that is, one cannot argue that the bottle is communist literature and were the bottle actually a sock, palm, pebble or pen, it would not have undermined this transformation to microphone. What shepherds its transformation is the relational proposition and temporary acceptance that PAH members could think about the bottle differently. While communist objects display, motivate and are thus contingent to ambivalence toward capitalism–the microphone is not radical because of it is ambivalence to capitalism. Rather, it is transformed because it is held up in a system of relational play, utilized as a relational tool within a constellation that is generally antagonistic to capitalism and the governing order. It was a relational proposition that made this transformation possible.

Image 5. A bottle can contain the spirit of a microphone
schematic drawing by Marc Herbst.

Taking Speculative Relational Change Seriously

To understand the nature of any object in relationship toward change is to also take seriously those who exist in relationships that aim to actualize the objectives of change. One can focus on the object to the exclusion of all that is around it, or one can look at how the object appears to have become special within particular social constellations. Communist objects suggest that one can find objects that, even when at rest, act a change agent; like guns, the escrache or leftist literature. One can also look at how groups like the PAH variationally relate in ways that they allow them to transform mundane things like bottles. This essay’s willingness to play with preternatural transformations demonstrates a theoretical commitment to the possibility that transformational relationships can be established between people and what appear as the objective rules of reality, like what is a bottle or what is property law. This transformation of reality mirrors the way in which the PAH transformed common sense understandings around the purpose and potential of empty houses. Relations between people, and between people and things that look like immutable facts, can be bridged by object-oriented interventions or via more purely relational processes. Cultural things help us conceptualize or proceed through relation. The employment of the escrache predetermines relationality in a particular objective form—as an escrache. Overall the PAH employs any variety of relationship plays, not just programmatic and definitional ones, such that they are able to transform bottles and the laws of reality, such as the laws around the right to housing.

One reason for the ultimate muddiness of facts around transformation can be traced to our relational enmeshment with a form of capitalist relationality that only seems to recognize aspects of things and possibilities that are evidently understood as useful, or that are metaphysically serviceable to capitalist profit. That is, within capitalism, we primarily recognize use or exchange value. Theorist Alberto Toscano [26] discusses how capitalism’s real strength lies in how it networks so much creative and critical thought through the locus of money and exchange value. Nearly everyone can appreciate the magic that is attributed to capitalism’s transformation of speculation on things into financial wealth: capitalism provides the currency and means through which to assess a value of any conceivable thing.

When we assess V de Vivienda beyond an objective determination of how they immediately effected the housing market we lose sight of how they opened up a realm for relational play. Recognizing the apparent opening they created, which remains conceptually stored within the general intellect, allows for a differently muddied assessment of their activities. When we only speculate on the political utility of any object in relation to its temporal utility rather than on the open possibilities it preserves for other relations, we conceptually frame ourselves within definitions that only value certain relations. Contrapposto, and in comparison with the possibility that oblique relationality holds, theorist Sylvia Wynter discusses how meaning-making is intricately bound to human biology. She is clear that besides what DNA and environment program, meanings of and for relational activity are central to life’s ongoing organization. She identifies Western Capitalism, in its secular Christian form, as defining the nature of objective facts today [27]. She uses the term secularity because in this Christian, godless world objects are wrongly assumed to be devoid of spirits that are not immediately useful or without the potential for capitalist growth via economic speculation. Wynter suggests the possibility for another version of secular reality, one that is not anchored to capitalist accumulation and anchored to European Whiteness. She explains among other things that, due to the thoroughly metaphysical nature of capitalist reasoning,

We presently live in a moment where the human is understood as a purely biological mechanism that is subordinated to a teleological economic script that governs our global well-being/ill-being—a script, therefore, whose macro- origin story calcifies the hero figure of homo oeconomicus who practices, indeed normalizes, accumulation in the name of (economic) freedom. Capital is thus projected as the indispensable, empirical, and metaphysical source of all human life. [28] This secular metaphysics prioritizes a cost-benefit analyses of life, relationships and their governance and reduces the potential meaning of objects to their most bare exchangeability, for someone else’s ultimate profit [29].

And so, this essay ends with an open question, not around the ongoing need to investigate the nature of objects in relation, but rather a question about the nature of relations that frame the variation of objects and objectivity. I wonder how it is that we poetically anchor perspectives around how things act, and how we can collectively, poetically and thus relationally suspend the immutability of things? Here, attention to relational play around any given thing matters just as much as attention to the object itself. Which specific formations of knowledge transmit relational propositions that enable speculative relations to emerge, through and besides objects? These promulgations speculatively impel the variability of relationality towards differing ends. When you hold onto either a tiger or a lamb, you effect its activities while also being subject to its force and will. It is easy to explain the utility of an escrache because its form objectively demands law-like accountability from capitalism (as a communist object). We have less of a language, however, for grasping the impossible but actual material transformation of a bottle because it was materially changed, even though it wasn’t. Objectively, the experience of relations is that they can independently flicker around possibilities like animal spirits, and this flickering can also be consequential towards other meaningful, real-world transformations. To develop a way of knowing and thinking around these knowledge constellations is a useful activity.

Marc Allen Herbst (Germany) is an interdisciplinary thinker, editor and artist. In 2001 he co-founded the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. The latest issue #11 (“Culture beside itself”) is act of editorial, extra-institutional solidarity between anti-fascist or avant garde collectives in this alarming but energizing global climate. He is also working on projects related to social transformation attendant to climate change via art and culture through efforts related to the Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin and as an editor of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination for their upcoming book with Pluto Press. He will be moderating a conference this Autumn on Care in political times at Stroom in the Hague, curated by Jules Rochielle.

Notes

1. I am purposefully using the term “autonomous art” in relationship to its conceptualization of art’s enlightenment and transformational potential, in order, ultimately, to destabilize the concept’s actual utility.

2. I find Paolo Virno’s (2008) definition of the multitude to be useful: “We know the multitude is opposed to the people, to their ‘one will.’ It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the multitude can dispose of the One as such. The exact opposite is true: the political existence of the ‘many,’ in as much as the word ‘many’ presupposes something of a community, is rooted in a homogeneous and shared environment, and stands out against an impersonal background . . . We might say: the One which the ‘many’ always carry on their back coincides in many aspects with the trans-individual realty that Marx called ’general intellect’”. Paolo Virno, Multitude Between Innovation and Negation (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), p.41.

3. My thinking on the nature of objects hopes to be reflective of how Roberto Esposito (2015) discusses them, but is also inspired by the total relationality of life embedded in Donna Harraway’s concept of the chthulethonic nature of life. Roberto Esposito, Persons and Things (Malden Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2015). Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Maing Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

4. Reza Negarestani’s 2011 essay “Contingency and Complicity” further discuss the basic understanding of many of the terms at play here. Reza Negarestani, “Contingency and Complicity,” in The Medium of Contingency, edited by Robin MacKay, (London: Urbanomic, 2011).

5. Thus, in many ways, this essay looks at the entangled, or in the terms of Donna Haraway cthuluthonic nature of our being in the world.

6. Ada Colau & Adria Alemany, Mortgaged Lives, (London: Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press, 2014), p. 30.

7. Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 states: “All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing. The public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and establish appropriate standards in order to make this right effective, regulating land use in accordance with the general interest in order to prevent speculation. The community shall have a share in the benefits accruing from the town-planning policies of public bodies.”

8. On the role for homeownership within the governing system of Spain, see Melissa García-Lamarca and Maria Kaika, “Mortgaged Lives; The Biopolitics of Debt and Housing Financialisation,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers #41 (2016), pp.313–327.

9. See for example: Vásquez-Vera et. al., “Foreclosure and Health in Southern Europe: Results from the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages,” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 93, No. 2 (2016), pp.312–330.

10. See: 20 Minutos (December 29, 2006) Los jóvenes españoles destinan el 64% de su sueldo a comprar un piso. Retrieved from: www.20minutos.es/noticia/183904/0/jovenes/compra/piso

11. Members of the art/activist collective Las Agencias would regroup under the name of the Enmedio collective and work with the Barcelona PAH on various activist/art projects.

12. This sort of summation–where the complex constellation that a project or activity relates within, through and too is textually negated so that as concise as possible a statement can be written, is completely standard practice. Attention is drawn to the facts of what is sublimated to be able to draw this summation in order to simply demonstrate once more how complex processes and things also are given and object-natured.

13. Karl Marx, “Fragment on Machines,” in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. (London: Penguin Books,1993), pp.690-712.

14. See for example, The Guardian, “Spain’s New Security Law Sparks Protests Across Country” (December 20th, 2014).

15. Taken from my fieldnotes of a PAH General Assembly, Barcelona, January 27, 2015.

16. Montjuïc is a mountain park near the center of the city where the homeless live in the woods and which during the Spain’s civil war was full of temporary and improvised housing.

17. Escraches, in the form developed by the PAH, were rolling and spontaneous protests aimed to socially isolate targeted individuals from the social realm by surrounding them in public with noise and angry bodies. I did not witness any escrache as the campaign was halted before my focused research period. But there are videos of them online, including spontaneous escraches emerging as Conservative parliamentarians board airplanes and are identified within the airplane cabin. The response to the escraches was enormous. According to Lucia Delgado, Ada Colau was doing national television broadcasts daily to explain the PAH’s position. She wasn’t only being asked to explain the ILP; she was being challenged about the ethics of the escrache within Spain’s constitutional monarchy. Lucia explained the media’s hostility to the escraches as proof of its being controlled by wealthy interests. The visibility of the PAH increased, and the number of local chapters bloomed. The PAH was awarded by a citizen’s prize by the European Parliament, which was accepted by Ada Colau. Meanwhile, Spain’s People’s Party compared the PAH to terrorists and Nazis for the escrache tactic. For more on the politics of this moment, see Suzanne Daley, “Leading the Charge Against Spain’s Mortgage Crisis,” New York Times, (December 20, 2013). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/world/europe/leading-the-charge-against-spains-mortgage-crisis.html.

18. For a thorough history of the escrache’s development and how different groups throughout the Americas and then Spain utilized and transformed it towards radical ends, see: Magdelena Balbi, Hacer Visible Y Hacer Audible. El Escrache de HIJOS y la PAH (un Poco) Mas Alla del Activismo Artistico. (Masters thesis with the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona/MACBA Independent Studies Program, 2013).

19. See for example Max Haiven, Art After Money, Money After Art, (London: Pluto Press, 2018).

20. On the history of the concept of the general intellect, see Matteo Pasquinelli, “The Origins of Marx’s General Intellect,” Radical Philosophy, 2.06 (Winter 2019).

21. Theoretically, I would rather use the word “social exchange” except for within the introduction where I discuss the cultural face of items, rather than the social face. I understand the social to consist of the more informal elements within interpersonal, relational exchange, and the cultural always relating to formal and institutional meaning. By informal, I mean, where the form for interaction is less determined. Because much of the difference between the social and the cultural is relative, the terms can be used with some interchangeability. What appears as an informal social exchange to one might be understood by another as a rule-bound and very formal exchange regulated by some cultural norms.

22. Paolo Virno, Multitude Between Innovation and Negation, p.41

23. While this essay discusses Nick Thoburn, the ideas in this essay have been informed by the theological ontologies traced by Eduardo Viveiros De Castro and Giorgio Agamben’s scholarship. Agamben’s The Coming Community (1993) details Western theological conceptions of the nature of objects, which differ greatly in meaning and disciplinary form from for, example, the multi-natural theological ontologies traced by Viveiros De Castro. See for example: Eduardo Viveiros De Castro, Radical Dualism, (Kassel Germany: Documenta, 2011).

24. Nicholas Thoburn, “Communist Objects and the Values of Printed Matter,” Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Summer 2010).

25. Ibid., p.9.

26. Alberto Toscano, “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction,” Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2008), pp. 273–287.

27. See Sylvia Wynter “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2003), pp. 257–337.

28. Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), p.10.

29. The formulation of another secular way that nevertheless allows other vocalities to emerge from objects in the world, and around the role of meaning as being central to life’s organization regardless, is shared by several philosophers. Notable for my interests is the work of Berlin-based philosopher and biologist Andreas Weber. For example, see Andreas Weber, Enlivenment: Towards a Poetics for the Anthropocene, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019).