COLLECTIVE GASTRONOMICAL IMAGINARY

(A few words about “The Gulag” as a rhetorical device. Unlike others who identify with an anti-authoritarian left, I don’t think it sufficient to reference “The Gulag” to ward it off, as if we could confront the Stalinist Rumpelstiltskin with its true name and make off with a future of the left now ‘innocent’ of all association with the political configuration of a repressive, carceral command economy. Like Mark Fisher, Jodi Dean, and Williams and Srnicek, I locate the above incantation in a broader rhetorical strategy adopted by others on the anti-authoritarian left which, in its superficial reference to institutions like the Gulag (abstracted from its specific causes and consequences), conflates left authoritarianism with the left’s (potential or actual) acquisition of any authority whatever. At the same time, there’s no reason for us to wait for some definitive account of the institutional logic of the Gulag as such (cf. Plamper on Foucault’s fraught attempt to pull this off) before we can return to it as critics.)

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Varlam Shalamov was a criminal of letters but never became an intellectual. He is first arrested for allegiance to Trotskyist group & publication of the anti-Stalinist document “Lenin’s Testament” in the late 1920’s. He is later interred in the gulag for 15 years or so (1936-1951) for, in part, praising anti-communist literary darling Ivan Bunin as a great writer of classic Russian literature. Named for the Kolyma gold-mine gulag where he labored for six years, his Kolyma Stories (written from ’54-’73) consists of a series of anti-novels in which the rudiments of narrative form are retained for the sake of presenting recollections of some just-survived encounter by a given narrator (“I,” “Shalamov,” “Andreyev,” etc.). If you find yourself directly addressed by Varlam Shalamov even when he didn’t write what you’re reading in the second person, this is, no doubt, because he’d so deeply internalized a vital piece of gulag wisdom: to never speak in the presence of a third party. Shalamov’s literary form of address is a direct consequence of having been de-socialized by the disciplinary machinery of the gulag. He’s left totally incapable of romantic intimacy (“In my life women have not played a major part: the camp is the reason” […]) and camaraderie (“Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face) […]”) (‘Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag,’ FFTILITG).

And yet, despite having claimed to learn nothing at the “negative school” of the Kolyma Gulag but how to wheel a loaded barrow, Shalamov extracts positive content – a concept – from his internment that suggests a way for us to conceive of a properly communist sociality without recourse to romance or friendship. Shalamov and his fellow prisoners still participate in a collective gastronomical imaginary: “pointless daydreaming, gastronomical fairy tales, quarrels with each other, lonely dreams—for we all dreamed the same dreams: loaves of rye bread flying over us like fireballs or angels.” (‘Field Rations,’ FR). Much to the chagrin of the Gulag authorities, prisoners come together to stockpile and compose a little commons wherever they find a blindspot in surveillance, a loophole in production policy.

Shalamov talks about prisoners pairing up, alternating their efforts to make sure at least one of them met the otherwise impossibly high expectations for production each day. Rewarded with greater rations for meeting the daily norm, one of the pair would pool their reward rations with the other’s punishment rations so that, every night, the pair ate more together than they would have if alone (FR). Of course, it never lasts for long. Whenever the Gulag bosses discover a little commons, they intervene with violence, fragmenting both stockpilers and stockpile. Shalamov remembers guards materializing out of the icy mist, kicking down the door of the barracks, interrupting a modest cookout:

“If you’ve got pots, that means you’ve got food to cook,” the mine chief expounded with an air of profundity. “That, you know, is a sign of plenty.” “Well you ought to see what they’ve been cooking,” said Kovalenko as he trampled the pots flat.” (‘The Parcel,’ TP)

Out of fear of discovery, prisoners internalize the violence and fragment themselves apart before the plenty ever appears. When prisoner Shestakov seduces Shalamov to conspire with him to escape by promising to share stolen condensed milk, Shalamov’s gastronomical fantasies – of perforated, planet-sized cans of condensed milk endlessly leaking their sweet, sticky contents like stars into the night sky – aren’t strong enough of a pull to motivate him to become Shestakov’s accomplice. Shalamov takes advantage of Shestakov’s willingness to share a few handfuls of condensed milk, only to back out of the escape attempt entirely and return to camp (‘Condensed Milk,’ CM). It’s clearly not enough for people to be visited by the same gastronomical phantasmagoria to bring them together.

As a libidinal attractor, these visions become more powerful to the extent that they present not only shared desire for wealth, but shared desire for sharing wealth. Shalamov describes not his fear, but his amazement at discovering the logging detachment he’s been assigned to with a few others not only lacks sufficient rations for the duration of their assignment to the woods, but also that they’ll be responsible for coming up with the food themselves (FR). As they begin to plan, pool, and divvy up their individual ration-shares, Shalamov marvels at their collective capacity to work miracles: “The operation of feeding the five thousand with five loaves of bread was probably easier and simpler […]” (FR). The “common kitty” these loggers share begins with a concerted, conscious effort on the part of each to give up sole possession of his rations (FR). However, this little commons is only maintained by a succession of miracles: the soup is made so thin, it asymptotically approaches 0; two coals and careful tending-to keep a fire burning on like a divine spark; the land’s “miraculous qualities” are revealed as the loggers discover burying any caught animal in the cold ground before cooking it makes the meat lose its smell (FR). It would be wrong to compare them to a primitive band of hunter-gatherers surviving on the whims of old gods. The undernourished loggers become an avant-garde of the future commons, freed from the interference of drunken cooks, thieving store men, greedy overseers, remorseless bosses (FR). True, it only lasted a week or so, but, powered by shared dreams of sharing bounty, the loggers coalesced into a unit of Red Belonging: “a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).” Rather than refer to these loggers as a generalizable model, we can recall their week in the woods as an example – just one, but a suggestive one – of the power of a collective gastronomical imaginary to motivate cooperative care among people otherwise incapable of community.

mark fisher, lyotard, and the negativity beyond critique

dying parliament

Left theory needs Lyotard. Fisher returns to the ‘scandalous’ passage from Libidinal Economy in which Lyotard suggests the English proletariat enjoyed their exploitation under early industrial capitalism, [1] only to argue that Lyotard is developing a fundamentally Marxist insight – specifically, that no Marxist ought to fight for any ‘return’ to pre-capitalist conditions (what, Fisher reminds us, Marx and Engels mock as “the idiocy of rural life”). [2] Lyotard excoriates the left for its reactionary and fundamentally religious belief in the existence of purely pre-capitalist – that is, pre-lapsarian – societies. [3] Left reactionary nostalgia for this past-that-never-was is also an abdication of the future. This nostalgia is complicit with the “capitalist libidinal infrastructure” (Ibid.) that Fisher elsewhere calls ‘capitalist realism,’ which he defines as the now widely accepted position that capitalism liberates desire. [4] For Fisher, the challenge facing the left is to articulate the ways in which capitalism, while appearing to liberate desire, ultimately frustrates it. However, to effect their retrogression to pre-capitalist society, the reactionary left needs to advocate for the frustration of desire and the inauguration of a new asceticism (Ibid.). What Fisher takes from Lyotard’s polemic against the left: there’s no uncontaminated origin to which we can return, and there’s no uncontaminated desire for an uncontaminated origin.

Back to those English proles – for Lyotard, what occurs during the industrial revolution is a denaturalization of the working class. [5] Fisher refers to Lyotard’s essay “Duchamp’s Transformers,” in which Lyotard draws a parallel between the avant-garde and the working class. Lyotard argues that the working class becomes the avant-garde of the organism through its adaptation – or, rather, mutation – to the conditions of the industrial economy (Fisher: “bodies that were stretched to capacities,” subject to a “blitzing of [their] sensorium”) (Ibid.). Two lessons from Lyotard:

  1. Capitalism was not ‘imposed’ on the English proles, but solicits their desire, even if capitalism must frustrate the desire it solicits. (Fisher: “The other part of the problem is of desire – which can’t be answered with ‘false consciousness.’” (Ibid.))
  2. The ‘avant-garde’ had fallen behind the English proles, who, in contrast to the reactionary nostalgia-formation of left-intellectuals, responded to industrialization through metamorphosis into a mutant workforce with no place or investment in the fantasy of a pure, pre-capitalist past.

With Lyotard, Fisher concludes: “the left subsiding into a moral critique of capitalism is a hopeless betrayal of the anti-identitarian futurism that Marxism must stand for if it is to mean anything at all” [6]. Why does left theory need Lyotard? Because it is still religious, reactionary, nostalgic, moralistic.

Lyotard needs left theory. For every advantage Lyotard has on traditional ‘left’ critique, Fisher thinks Lyotard’s anti-capitalism fails. Lyotard’s “emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification” (Ibid.) relies on an implicit asymmetry between the libidinal and the political such that the former is prior to and productive of the latter. This asymmetry, however, risks reducing the political into an epiphenomenal effect of the libidinal. For Fisher, it’s an insight of Freud’s which renders this reduction untenable – namely, Freud’s distinction between ‘instinct’ and ‘drive.’ Where instinct implies some unmediated (read: pure) form of desire, Freud argues humans have no instinct, but only drives, and drives are manipulable. [7] Political configurations, while composed by libidinal investments, have a recursive effect on the libidinal energy that powers them. This conditioning of the libidinal by the political is what Fisher calls libidinal engineering. While Lyotard fell prey to the temptation of seeking a purity to the libidinal by “the heat of desire [that] just wants to be free,” Fisher implores us to “approach desire in a way that is colder”:

[W]e have drives but not instincts, which makes them reprogrammable […] and capital knows this about desire already, which is why it puts so much money and energy into libidinal engineering [and the left] doesn’t have the same resources at its disposal […] [8]

Despite Lyotard’s own best efforts to solely affirm, Fisher argues that Lyotard nonetheless advances a form of negativity, albeit one excessive to ‘traditional’ – i.e., religious, reactionary, nostalgic, moralistic – left critique. Fisher:

Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. [9]

The question of the future of the left is “a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.” [9] Libidinal engineering names the operation whereby the left might acquire the capacity to make contact with the powers of negativity and transform the libidinal to condition the production of a new political arrangement. But to what end? Not just to the end of a new arrangement in which desire has, once again, been engineered to support an arrangement that frustrates it. Fisher names the possible reconciliation of libidinal engineering and libidinal liberation communism. [10] Why does Lyotard need the left? To be reminded of the possibility of such reconciliation.


[1] “The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening. (Libidinal Economy, 111)”

“Terminator Vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism, 2010 (http://markfisherreblog.tumblr.com/post/32522465887/terminator-vs-avatar-notes-on-accelerationism)

[2] “The Soviet system could not achieve this vision, but perhaps its realisation still lies ahead of us, provided we accept that what we are fighting for is not a ‘return’ to the essentially reactionary conditions of face-to-face interaction, “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity”, [Nick Land, ‘Making it with Death: Remarks on Thanatos and Desiring-Production’, in Fanged Noumena, p. 281.] or what Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life”, but rather the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere.” (https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE)

[3] “But in what does the alleged scandalous nature of this passage reside? Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[4] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAQ6lhpVIss)

[5] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrKiScp_gog)

[6] “As Lyotard suggests, the left subsiding into a moral critique of capitalism is a hopeless betrayal of the anti-identitarian futurism that Marxism must stand for if it is to mean anything at all. What we need, as Fredric Jameson—the author of “Wal-Mart as Utopia”—argues, is not a new move beyond good and evil, and this, Jameson says, is to be found in none other than the Communist Manifesto. “The Manifesto,” Jameson writes, “proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program.” (Valences of the Dialectic, 551)” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[7] Cf: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrKiScp_gog)

[8] “Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. […] Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing. Time to leave behind the logics of failed revolts, and to think ahead again.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

[9] “But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari/Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.” (“Terminator Vs. Avatar”)

See also: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Tuck7eMqo)

[10] “There were clues, perhaps, in the architectural marvels from the dying years of the Soviet bloc, photographed by Frédéric Chaubin: “buildings designed at the hinge of different worlds, in which sci-fi futurism conjoins with monumentalism”, “quasi-psychedelic, crypto-Pop”. [Frédéric Chaubin, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (Taschen, 2010), p. 15, 9.] While Chaubin sees these buildings as a temporary efflorescence brought about by the rotting of the Soviet system, can’t we grasp them instead as relics from a yet-to-be-realised post-capitalist future in which desire and communism are joyfully reconciled? “Neither modern nor postmodern, like free-floating dreams, they loom up on the horizon like pointers to a fourth dimension.” [Ibid., p. 15.] ”

(https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE)

 

heterodox communism (a sketch)

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“The Way Out Of The Conservatives,” T.T. Heine (1910)

Surely, what follows is mostly a misunderstanding of communism, but we can’t be so uniquely stupid that these ideas are even original errors. In any case, we can find some explosive little heterodoxies running through a sample of Marx+Marx-Engel’s arguments, margins, and one-offs. To paraphrase haphazardly, without much regard for context:

Communism is not a state of affairs to be established, but a real movement to abolish the present state of things, and so is neither a Platonic Idea we elect to participate in or approximate nor a Kantian Ideal for us to asymptotically approach. [1]

Communism is not a theoretical programme, which would remain bound to the demand to generate ‘adequate’ descriptions of status-quo ‘facts,’ but is an experimental programme for launching attacks on the material – therefore mutable – basis on which the edifice of ‘facts’ said to compose the current world has been built. [2]

Communism is not, properly speaking, anti-theoretical, but involves reading theory as an arsenal of embryonic concepts which can only undergo maturation insofar as they inform revolutionary assaults and transform to fit the needs of revolutionaries as a result of their deployment. [2]

Communism never resolves into a world of new natural ‘givens,’ but names the programme of collective techno-social denaturation of so-called ‘natural facts,’ which are revealed to be historically produced – all to the effect of dissolving (gendered, racial, etc.) hierarchies ‘justified’ by naturalistic appeal. [3]

Communism does not require the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat in principle, but only insofar as we remain limited in our ability to imagine a more effective forcible/coercive means to hasten the bourgeoise out of existence. [4]

Communism does not rely on some agential capacity of sovereign, liberal subjects to simultaneously will themselves to emancipation, but, when effective, spreads like blight through the social field as the trans-personal mob-mind of ‘communist consciousness’ seduces defectors from other classes. [5]

Communism does not name a dutiful, dogmatic commitment to some ‘way the world ought to be,’ but a revelry in the anarchy of having no idea about what ought to happen among those who find their new world by bringing this one to ruin. [6]

Communism is not some indefinite reinforcement of class stratification, but an endless expression of the dissolution of classes by a class which becomes unrecognizable as a class in its war to end all class war. [7]

Communism does not consist in the individualistic moral injunction to either satisfy your pre-given desires – as a hedonist – or deny them – as an aescetic – but is an attack on the material basis on which the fixity of your ‘pre-given’ desire depends and, consequently, brings about the liquefaction of all desire. [8]

Communism has nothing in common with the moralizer’s dream of a sentimental revolution that would bring about a new, universal morality of love – since ‘love,’ like ‘selfishness,’ as we understand it now is not guaranteed a future after the abolition of all earlier relations of intercourse [9] – but, rather, disabuses us of the idea that the job of the revolutionary has anything to do with preaching morality at all. [10]

Of course, this is only a sketch, but it is another ‘sense’ in which one could call oneself a communist, unburdened from at least some of the stultifying dross with which communism has become associated. Here’s to the thought of a meaner kind of communism than any we’ve seen before.


[1] “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_The_German_Ideology.pdf)

[2] “[On Feuerbach:] He wants to establish consciousness of this fact, that is to say, like the other theorists, merely to produce a correct consciousness about an existing fact; whereas for the real communist it is a question of overthrowing the existing state of things. We thoroughly appreciate, moreover, that Feuerbach, in endeavouring to produce consciousness of just this fact, is going as far as a theorist possibly can, without ceasing to be a theorist and philosopher…. […] In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionising the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development.” (Ibid.)

[3] “The capacity for development of infants depends on the development of parents and all the mutilations of individuals, which are an historical product of ancient social conditions, are equally capable of being historically avoided. Even the natural diversity of species, as for example the differences of race, etc., are and must be checked historically.” (Ibid.)

[4] “[S]o long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm)

[5] “In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.” (Ibid.)

[6] “Not only has universal anarchy broken out among the reformers, but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. However, this very defect turns to the advantage of the new movement, for it means that we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm)

[7] “In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society” (The German Ideology)

[8] “Since they attack the material basis on which the hitherto inevitable fixedness of desires and ideas depended, the Communists are the only people through whose historical activity the liquefaction of the fixed desires and ideas is in fact brought about and ceases to be an impotent moral injunction, as it was up to now with all moralists “down to” Stirner.” (Ibid.)

[9] “Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals.” (Ibid.)

[10] “Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its highflown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The Communists do not preach morality at all. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another […].” (Ibid.)

communism of thought

mascolo
Christian Baltauss, Gérard Depardieu, Dionys Mascolo

There is already something communist about thought itself – or, at the very least, of resolving to continue to think. This is the thesis of Dionys Mascolo, who, in his 1988 correspondence with Gilles Deleuze, quotes the mad romantic Hölderlin:

The life of the spirit between friends, the thoughts that form in the exchange of words, by writing or in person, are necessary to those who seek. Without that, we are by our own hands outside thought. (qtd. in Munro, 53)

Mascolo-Deleuze come to agree – distress precedes friendship (Mascolo) and friendship precedes distress (Deleuze). If friendship is “an internal condition of thought as such” (45), it’s only because there is a distress of the latter sort, however. Of course, there was the shared distress of Nazi occupation that incites the formation of the French Resistance. But then there was the distress of sharing internal to the French Resistance, the constant threats of betrayal, aphasia, amnesia – failures of trust, of communication, of memory, respectively. Distress of sharing gives friendship what Deleuze elsewhere calls “the claws of absolute necessity” capable “of an original violence inflicted upon thought […] which alone would awaken thought from its natural stupor” (Difference and Repetition, 139). But what could be communist about thought if it arises only out of failed friendship, in response to “trespass and violence, an enemy” (139)? Because “there is only involuntary thought” (139). Because, in other words, thought cannot begin or re-begin except through failing and being failed by your friends, over and over and over again. Deleuze, in a letter to Mascolo:

I no longer remember which German poet wrote of the twilight hour when one should be wary ‘even of a friend.’ One would go that far, to wariness of a friend, and all of that would, with friendship, put the ‘distress’ in thought in an essential way. (53-54)

If this distress is essential to thought, there is no possible individualism of thought, no thought without the fits and starts of unstable friendship. The communist-of-thought understands the distress of sharing is itself a shared distress. What is so communist about thinking? To renew our thought, we will after every betrayal have to perform the gesture of sharing the distress of sharing. Communism of thought names the capacity to share the distress of sharing^n. We suggest: forget the idyll of social harmony as a motive for collectivization and turn the failures of collectivization into a motor for collectivization itself.


The Communism of Thought, Michael Munro (2014)

Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze, trans. Paul Patton (1994)