Summary: Stevphen speaks on militant research through collaborative, open process publishing, and on negotiating an ambivalent relationship to the university—appropriating resources while refusing to become the administrator of someone else’s precarity.
[This is Part 2, continued from Part 1 here.]
CW: What sort of relationship do you see between autonomous publishing, such as with Autonomedia and Minor Compositions, and movement building? Do you take a strategic approach to publishing, thinking about what to publish in terms of whether it is strategically important for movements?
Stevphen: There are certain strategic considerations that get factored in, but I wouldn’t say it’s as narrowly instrumental as that might sound. The question isn’t like, ‘will this book help build the mass movement, yes or no?’ It’s more like, ‘does this publication develop an interesting line of thought or raise a certain question or elaborate a certain strain of thinking or organizing that is useful or valuable?’ That would be an important criterion. There are certainly some books that we’re doing that we know from the beginning are never going to be massive sellers. Like, Colectivo Situaciones, they’re not going to be the next Crimethinc. But, what they’re talking about in terms of how they push militant research, how they push movements, how they go about working, I think what they’re doing is quite interesting and valuable. In that sense, it adds something quite useful to movement building, even if it does so on a molecular scale at first. Certainly those strategic questions are factored in, but they might be thought of at first at the molecular level.
CW: You mentioned militant research, and I know several things you’ve published have been in that vein. In the name of your publishing imprint, Minor Compositions, I’m guessing that ‘minor’ is a reference to Deleuze and Nick Thoburn’s idea of ‘minor politics.’ How do you see promoting militant research through publishing as a minor political approach?
Stevphen: This needs to be a question for the publishing series project in the longer-term sense. In what I originally started putting together with Minor Compositions, there was a specific focus on bringing together questions of aesthetics, art, and politics with ideas around class composition and militant research. So, this sort of ‘minor compositions’ sense was about trying to bring together these questions around aesthetics, art, autonomism, and labor. I think it’s somewhat expanded from that since then. Not everything is framed in such a specific way. That will require a re-thinking of what the project is. I think there is something of the idea of ‘the minor’ in the way Deleuze and Guattari and Nick Thoburn use it, in that you can sort of find another level or another dynamic in almost any set of ideas or histories.
What those of us who work in business schools in the UK have been doing, it could be understood as a form of syncretism, like in places in South America or the Caribbean, there’s the Catholic saints, and when Catholicism comes along and is enforced in an area, all of the local deities just become Catholic saints—they become sort of the underside of the saint. In a way, you could say that the minor, in a sense, is pulling out that under-level of what else is involved in a history or an idea. I think that’s what a lot of us in the UK business schools have been doing. What is business ethics except for how demands of social movements are re-encoded by the business? Or what is sustainability? You could do this for each area. This study of employee motivation is about the subjective involvement of the worker in the labor process. Minor Compositions is probably moving on project-wise from being a publishing imprint about aesthetics and class composition into being a more general object of finding these minor moments in histories and excavating them.
CW: Could you give an example of that from any of the recent books that you’ve put out from Minor Compositions?
Stevphen: [pulls a pile of books off his shelf and picks one out] I’ll mention this book here, a small one called Walking Archives by Eduardo Molinari.
He’s an Argentine artist, and his project is interesting. It’s sort of like he’s doing archival research about soybean production in Argentina but he’s also walking around the country. He’s doing this weird drift thing, but then writing about history and writing about poetry, and then he’s working at these different levels of history, political economy, and politics that are focusing on the geography of soybean production and the genetic modification of soybeans, and then how this plays out in the political realm. So, it doesn’t fit into any clear category. But he’s going back to the National Archives, and he’s taking different sorts of areas of thinking or research and pulling something else out of it.
CW: Are there any upcoming releases that you’d like to mention?
Stevphen: At the moment there are a few projects which are coming out quite soon, and many more that are more long term. In the next few months we’ll be putting out Lives of the Orange Men by Waldemar Fydrych, which will be the first book in English about the Orange Alternative, who were an early 1980s Polish anarchist-surrealist movement. They dressed as dwarves and helped to destabilize Soviet rule in Poland.
There will also be a book of poetry and an album by the avant-garde saxophonist John Gruntfest, book-length detournement of the communist manifesto by Richard Gilman-Opalsky. Beyond that there are projects planned with Mohamed Jean Veneuse, John Hutnyk, the Slovenian art collective Irwin, Colectivo Situaciones, translation of books by Daniel Colson and Carlos Lenkersdorf, and many others.
CW: One thing I like about your Minor Compositions editing is that you take an innovatively collaborative approach, such as starting a facebook group and crowd-sourcing the advising and editing. Do you see your approach to publishing as a kind of militant co-research, or at least ideally, would you like it to become that?
Stevphen: Hopefully so. The question is, how to involve people in a way that becomes a co-production of subjectivity and community and not just, like, ‘how could I filch your labor?’ I mean, it’s very easy for co-production or collaboration now to seem, like, ‘how can I be like Mark Zuckerberg and get as much involvement and as many eyeballs as possible?’ I don’t want it to be that. So, I was trying to figure out how to make that process work in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s horrible.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick has written this quite good book about re-thinking academic publishing [Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy - read it online here]. She’s in favor of open process, collaborative reviewing. I’d like to see things like that get more involved in publishing, and I’m thinking about how that could work. A lot of times, if you’re asked to write a review of a book proposal or an essay, there’s a lot of time and thought that goes into writing a review. I’d like some ways for that to become more part of the process, so that publishing doesn’t become a gate-keeping function for how does this academic discipline maintain, but more like how does this already-in-movement process of collaboration become more valuable and beneficial to what’s being created through it.
CW: It seems like for that kind of collaboration to be useful for the production of better work, we would need wider institutional changes to how academia gives credit for work. It seems like a big part of how academic culture functions is that there’s a lot of critique—a lot of kind of setting yourself up as the critical authority on something and gaining points through shutting down work that other people do—rather than having a more constructive, collaborative process in reviewing. For these kinds of approaches to work, we’d also need a broader cultural shift in academia. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Stevphen: I think part of it would just be, before I was talking about these value metrics of what’s important in terms of academic labor. I’d want to start with making the case—and this is something that Kathleen Fitzpatrick says—that when you’re spending time involved in collaboration and discussion, whether it’s reviewing or otherwise, this should be thought of as something which is important and integral to the work you do, not as something, like, ‘oh, we’re glad to do it but that’s not counted.’ How to shift that on a much broader scale is a quite interesting problem. Being here in the UK, it’s now basically stated government policy that research which is publicly funded in the next few years should remain open. I think we’re going to get some of these conversations happening, and I think the ways in which labor and time and energy are valued will start shifting almost out of necessity by that happening. I think it’s possible.
CW: In the UK, I seem to remember that part of the shift with the REF regime, an ‘impact factor’ was included as one of the big metrics, like impact on helping business. Somebody from a radical academic perspective was talking about how maybe that impact factor could be interpreted to include impact on, say, helping social movements.
Stevphen: I’m not an expert on how this is working, but I do know that ‘impact’ can be construed in quite broad ways. It can be construed broadly as being shown to have a measurable effect on social wellbeing. For instance, if you look at one project—which I haven’t been involved as much in—at Queen Mary and Essex where people have been setting up ‘NGO clinics,’ modeled on this idea of the free law clinic. You have people doing the sort of things they would be involved in working with social movements already, but finding a language that could be thought of as acceptable within the framework that they’re in. This is an interesting if perhaps not the most amazing example. There are ways to sort of appropriate time or to find a space to justify what you are already doing if you tweak the language on the forms the right way. I think that an important distinction to make is: finding ways to find cover or space for what you already want to do in the structure, rather than saying, ‘okay, I have to do these ten new things in order to be legit,’ because that would just be intensifying workload. Instead, say, ‘how could I make what I already want to do seem acceptable for that system?’—which is a kind of undercommoning.
CW: This reminds me of the theme of that little drifting workshop that you put on at the London Anarchist Bookfair a couple years ago, which was around questions of visibility and invisibility in organizing. You posed questions such as, how can we be intentional about making certain aspects of what we do visible and other parts of what we do invisible for different audiences? How can we make ourselves visible in a way that allows us to get credit or resources or whatever, while hiding parts that would get us in trouble or prevent our movement?
Stevphen: I think it’s funny. At the time, I thought by saying that it was some really daring and provocative thing, but last year there was an essay in the Times Higher Education called “The Unseen Academy.” It basically said, in the university now everything is so guarded and so regulated that the only way to actually do scholarship is to do it below the radar. They made the argument that if you want to do any quality teaching you are probably going to be breaking some rule anyway. They basically made the same argument that I wanted to make. In some ways, they’re similar to the argument that Stefano Harney wanted to make, but it was in the Times Higher.
CW: Is the undercommons becoming mainstream now?
Stevphen: It always was even if no one knew it. Thankfully, I’ve still got it on limited edition red vinyl. … I don’t know. I wouldn’t worry about it in that kind of way. I think this is particular to the UK, but have you ever come across exam boards? Let’s say you give an assignment and you mark the essays and you have to give an exam. In the UK, to give an assignment, there’s a moderation process internal to the university that all exams and tests are sent to an external examiner. At the end of the year, there’s this whole process involving external examination where all work is put through a process of sort of validating it by some person outside of the university. It makes the entire thing much more bureaucratic and slow. So, if I wanted to change the assignment for the class I’m teaching in Spring 2015, I would have had to file the forms to do that in March of 2013. What made me think of that is the level of how assessment is done in the UK is much more regulated than it is in the US. So, to a certain extent, an argument that quality teaching is hard to fit in within the regulations is much easier to see within that kind of framework [in the UK] which is much more regulated.
CW: We’ve been talking for a while now. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Stevphen: One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I’ve started to supervise PhD students, and I almost feel compelled to tell them up front all the things that I wasn’t told when I was starting to do the PhD. Like, ‘if you’re lucky and get a full-time academic gig, you’re going to spend 40% of the time doing paperwork. Congrats.’ I think there’s a question—and maybe this is an undercommons question—of how to socialize people into this kind of situation where you negotiate a relationship to the university as, let’s say, a workplace, but an ambivalent one. I think there’s something of value here, but it’s maybe a lot less valuable than it might seem at first. That’s not saying, ‘let’s disregard it,’ but it’s saying, ‘what here is valuable? What can we learn from it? And how can we use the resources to support movements that are also outside of that space?’ So, I guess what I’m speaking about is the connection between the extra-institutional thinking, labor organizing and how this mutually supports and is supported by… I’ll put it this way: there are undercommons within the university but there’s also many common spaces and undercommons outside of it. How to relate those different moments? I suppose that’s one of the many interesting things to think about.
CW: That’s definitely a big question, how to relate those different moments—how to have a circulation of the common between those different undercommons. I feel like in my own graduate career, that’s something that no professor talked with me about. I’ve only gotten into that kind of question through discussions in organizing. It’s definitely not part of the standard socialization process to raise those questions. Have you thought of good ways to have those discussions with your PhD students?
Stevphen: It’s somewhat complicated. For a while I had one student who was here at Essex but with scholarship that was just fees only, so it wasn’t a very good position. She ended up going somewhere else that offered her more money, but it wasn’t the best place for her work. So, we’ve had a discussion but not through the best of situations. She’s constantly unhappy where she is, so at this point I sort of supervise her even though I’m not her supervisor. So, not in any formal way, but I just realized that’s something I need to do as I’m starting to supervise students: to say, ‘what are you thinking of doing here and what do you want to get out of this?’
CW: I think, for me, one thing that professors made it seem like was that the university is the only place where you can do radical intellectual work. They never really talked about how radical intellectual production happens outside of the university, such as in organizing. That was just something I had to learn through my own experiences. So, I think some students come up feeling like it’s either the university or nothing. Then, it seems like a kind of ‘do or die’ situation of clinging onto an academic career.
Stevphen: Take someone like Jim Fleming, who founded Autonomedia. He was doing his PhD in Iowa, working with Gayatri Spivak. Then, he founded Autonomedia after he quit grad school and moved to New York. For years, they published the Semiotext(e). Thinking of the development of ideas and circulation of ideas, would it have been better if he had finished his PhD and gotten an academic job? Doing a sort of alternative history question, in a certain way, I’d suggest that he probably had a much greater effect doing what he did. Although now having been an adjunct at Hunter and in the New York system for 35 years, he might occasionally question the wisdom of that decision. I’m glad that he made that decision, but it’s a decision that is hard to bear by yourself. And so it has to be a collective discussion about what are the conditions to make the non-institutional life of the general intellect possible—unless you happen to have wealthy benefactors and/or bank robbing skills.
CW: Those of us who are radical intellectuals who do make it into an academic career can become relatively wealthy in some ways. So, if we want to have a collective discussion about how we can support each other, maybe part of it could be talking about how we can share the wealth from those academic positions across collectives. And how to include people who have been pushed out or who have risen out of the academic system and who are trying to do radical intellectual work but who aren’t getting compensated for it.
CW: I’ve talked with some people about creating alternative sorts of education institutions—such as popular education types of centers or something like the Institute of Anarchist Studies or the Social Science Centre—that can be collective projects between academics who are in more stable careers and radical intellectuals who are pushed out or rise out. I feel like there’s a lot of potential for those kinds of alternative institutions to enable these kinds of movements across the boundaries of the academic system, and to take their resources.
Stevphen: I think there are, but I think those are also quite unstable moments. That’s something maybe to ask Stefano [Harney] about when you talk with him. But there were a few years at Queen Mary where there was a quite good situation for providing support for lots of good extra-institutional projects. That worked quite well. And then, things changed. With these sorts of moments, I think, there’s a limit to how much space you can claim from the institution and for how long. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
CW: I’m really interested in discussing those limits more, and having a broader collective discussion about how we can recognize those limits, push them, and organize around them. Thinking about, what are some organizing models for pushing those limits, such as with labor unions and student unions? How can we bring together those organizing forms to create spaces within universities that push those limits more? For example, if you had a labor union that was able to help create a kind of autonomous ‘social science centre’ within the university, that could allow for more of that boundary-pushing work.
Stevphen: Definitely. One last thought to add: just to tack on a thought about precarity, when we’re expecting to do some work, there’s this dynamic that when you find yourself in a more permanent position, part of the bargain is that you then have to administer someone else’s precarity; it’s almost like there is a Faustian pact. ‘We’ll give you a better deal, but in giving you a better deal, the downside is you have to administer a crappier deal for someone else.’ So, part of mediating that boundary is not letting your desire for security come at the expense of agreeing to something that you wouldn’t want to do otherwise.
Stevphen Shukaitis is Lecturer in Work & Organization at the University of Essex. You can freely download many of his books and articles here, such as Imaginal Machines and Constituent Imaginations (co-edited with David Graeber). He is also the editor of Minor Compositions, “a series of interventions & provocations drawing from autonomous politics, avant-garde aesthetics, and the revolutions of everyday