Summary: Stevphen Shukaitis, editor of Minor Compositions, talks about the possibilities for open publishing as an experiment and a provocation. Drawing on his book, Imaginal Machines, he reflects on the challenge of resisting the recuperation of radical energies in work. As a professor in a business school, he shares his approach to radical teaching: using traditional materials for subversive ends.
[This is Part 1 of the interview. Here’s Part 2.]
CW: How did you come to be involved in radical thinking and organizing around universities?
Stevphen: Honestly I’m not quite sure how much of what I’m involved in is in fact all that radical at all. And I’m saying that not out of some self-flagellating doubt, but out of an honest appraisal. Anyways, I grew up in a suburban town in Pennsylvania. I got interested in art and the punk rock scene. I started thinking about radical politics through that gateway drug called a Crass album, namely Christ the Album.
I spent too much time reading liner notes of albums, some of which pointed me in the direction of more interesting ideas. That segued into reading political theory and then getting a degree in sociology, and getting interested in doing media work. From the punk scene to studying political theory, getting involved in media and radio production in New York, and also joining a worker-owned record label: a sort of weird intersection of punk and media production and political theory. Music and the arts and politics and theory for me have always intermingled with each other.
CW: Could you say a little about some of the projects you’ve been involved in?
Stevphen: The project I’ve now been involved in for the longest would be editorial work with Autonomedia, which I’ve been doing since 2005. I think Autonomedia is an interesting project in the sense that it’s been around, publishing stuff of political media theory, arts theory, since the early 80s. There’s something quite interesting about collectives and projects that persist for that length of time. Oftentimes within radical political circles you don’t get that level of persistence in time. It’s interesting to see what value you can have for forms of collectivity that endure. Midnight Notes, AK Press, and Ruigoord are other examples. I think there’s a value in—not necessarily stability because obviously they keep changing—but what kinds of projects persist and that hold together a kind of milieu. That’s what I see as one of the main values of that kind of project.
Open Access Publishing as Experiment and Provocation
CW: You’ve started your own sub-press imprint, Minor Compositions. Could you say a bit about how and why you formed that project?
Stevphen: One of the initial pragmatic reasons for that is that I live in the UK now, and Autonomedia is based in New York, and oftentimes we don’t get to have meetings very often. If you’re trying to decide everything by consensus process but you only meet every four months, it makes processing things go very, very slowly. So, part of the idea was just, ‘okay, I’ll start this other branch over here, which is connected but isn’t necessarily run in the exact same way.’ Autonomedia has done a lot over its history. It’s had various projects coordinated with it, such as Anarchy [A Journal of Desire Armed] and the folks from Data Browser. So, Minor Compositions is connected to but not completely the same thing as Autonomedia’s regular publishing line. I also wanted to experiment with making everything open source and freely available. So, it required a somewhat different workflow and digital hosting than other Autonomedia books. But, it’s still very much a part of the same overall project.
CW: Minor Compositions’ open source and freely available character is something I really admire about it. Could you say a little more about why you decided to do that and how you see that approach in relation to the wider publishing industry?
Stevphen: I think one of the things about publishing that I didn’t realize until I got more enmeshed in its belly is how much of the funds go to costs of distribution. For instance, let’s say if you’re going through a commercial distribution channel, through the book trade, you might only be getting back on average about 30% from the sale. That makes it quite difficult to hold together printing costs. Those are just sort of very basic logistics in publishing. I was hoping that you’d have more widespread and faster forms of circulation and publishing ideas by making things freely available online than you could have within conventional channels or at least ones that I was aware of.
Also, I was interested in the question of: to what degree can radical publishing be open? What does the ‘openness’ in open publishing mean, and how far can that go? To paraphrase Spinoza, it’s to ask what the body of open publishing is capable of, which is perhaps both more and less than you might think at first. There is difficulty in being sustainable and making a project able to support itself. It’s an experiment and also a provocation to see what’s possible.
CW: How do you find that the experiment has been working out so far in terms of both its sustainability and its provocativeness?
Stevphen: I think it’s going okay so far. I basically bankrolled the whole thing, so this is an instance where having a less precarious position certainly helped. I’d like to not be doing that in the long run. Also, at the moment it’s been a bit more financially stable thanks to our putting together a collection of essays by David Graeber [Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination]. It’s just a collection of essays but we managed to sell the translation rights into a number of different languages, which is quite strange. It’s just an essay collection, but that’s helped in supporting other things as well.
CW: You mentioned that your having a less precarious position helps for funding this. I’m interested in hearing more about how you’ve been able to work as an academic—getting some resources and stability—while also doing autonomous, radical projects and kind of appropriating resources from your academic position. How do you negotiate the tensions between those two worlds? You wrote an essay a while ago about the “nomadic educational machine” and the “infrapolitics of the undercommons.” Do you see your using resources from your academic job for autonomous radical projects in these terms?
Stevphen: It’s strange. As an academic worker, I’m working in a business school in the UK, which has a much different set of value metrics about what counts as valid output than you would have in programs elsewhere. As a result what’s considered valuable and important is quite different. It’s about knowing how to play the sort of value system of the labor process you’re involved in. At some points this can seem quite debilitating. I’ll give you an example: I remember when my book [Imaginal Machines] first came out, I brought a copy to my boss, and I was all proud of it. It was almost like I was holding my baby, like, ‘here, look I brought my cute baby.’ My boss looks at me and says, ‘yeah, that’s great Steve, why’d you do that?’ And I was like, ‘what?’ Basically, what he was saying was that where we work here, books don’t count. You can become a full professor without ever writing book, which is much different then being in the social sciences or humanities in the US, where it seems difficult to even get interviewed these days without having published several. When it comes time to do the evaluation of research output, that’s not going to count for anything. It’s not going to be like, ‘you hit a grand slam homerun. Great job for you.’ It’s nothing. On the other hand, I published a series of articles in journals that are well ranked, and that was the thing that was seen as very good – even though I didn’t understand it as significant, and still don’t.
It’s strange because doing all those other things like writing a book, doing public speaking events, or doing interesting things politically or artistically are the things that your colleagues are interested in – but they aren’t the things that register in the value metrics of the university. It’s almost like a kind of schizophrenia between knowing these two things in order get any credit for your work. It says you have to publish in these places and do this, and there’s stuff you also want to do. It’s almost as if you manage to play the first set of value metrics in a way that is deemed to be satisfactory, then you are allowed a greater leeway where with the other things you are doing you can do what you want. It’s kind of a schizophrenic response to knowing how to use those different measures of importance – and the difficult part is how to play with them without letting them change what’s really important to you. This is somewhat awkward for me, in that I didn’t want to have to divide up doing, you know, ‘this is my political work and this is the academic work.’ Sometimes it’s helped to actually make that sort of division. If you look at the things I’ve published in so-called ‘high scoring’ management journals, it’s about communist space aliens and Marxist forms of resistance. So, it’s not as though there’s the straight-laced business material and then everything else. It’s more about which markets it appears in and how it appears.
On the Recuperation of Radical Energies in Work
CW: How have you been able to thrive within a business school? In US business schools, I’ve hardly heard of any Autonomist Marxists or anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian people being able to make careers for themselves. What’s going on in the UK such that you and others with radical politics have been able to make careers?
Stevphen: There’s an institutional history: in the 1980s, during Thatcherism, there was a defunding of a lot of sociology programs. People who were involved in sort of Marxist labor studies, labor process theory, in order to get jobs or keep their jobs, decided that they were organization theorists. Thus they moved over to that direction. At the same time people started reading Foucault and post-structural work. The sort of rise of critical management studies in the 90s in the UK comes out of this post-structural Marxist turn. Historically it’s often attributed to the publication of a book called Critical Management Studies by Alvesson and Wilmott in 1992, which is partially true, although there are a number of tendencies and trajectories that have fed into it as well which are quite important, such as varieties of feminism and queer theory as well. And there have been a number of universities in the UK and across Europe that have functioned as important hubs for development of this kind of work including Leicester, Queen Mary, Essex, and Copenhagen Business School, as well as journals such as ephemera.
CW: One thing you talk about in your book Imaginal Machines is the idea of ‘recuperation,’ a concept that you draw from the Situationists. Do you think about that issue in relation to getting the kind of radical work that you’re writing about published in these well-respected journals? How do you think about the recuperation of radical movements within the ‘academic-industrial complex’?
Stevphen: It can be difficult to say exactly, but I’ll say two things. First, when I was writing Imaginal Machines, one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about recuperation there is, if you’re following the sort of autonomist argument along with people like Tronti and Negri—that recuperation is about antagonism to capital and the state, which is this sort of prime motor of historical, political development—then this would mean that recuperation isn’t a marginal phenomenon, but is in fact a quite central category. And that it’s something that is almost inevitable. I wanted to go back to talking about recuperation, and drawing from the SI, as a way of talking about how, ‘okay, this is how this thing happens, it’s not the end of the story.’ It’s just this sort of punctuated point where you have to constantly say, ‘okay, this is what’s happening. How do I think about it in a way that sort of re-opens political possibilities?’ Or, to put it in autonomist terms, the question becomes: how to turn political decomposition into a new form or recomposition? It was trying to take a concept that gets used in radical political thought as a kind of nostalgic, ‘things are over, we missed our time’ kind of idea, and to say, ‘no, that’s totally wrong.’ That was what I was trying to do there.
In terms of how this plays out in the work I’ve been doing and also friends and comrades have been doing in universities here in the UK, probably why I started to think about that more was because of seeing all of the people getting along in business schools in the UK who have more critical views. If a typical understanding of recuperation is that you want to bring in people with more radical politics into the university, or into capital, to sort of learn from or soak up their ideas and energies, I’m actually not sure that at this moment in the political-economic status quo that it actually can get that much from us. That is aside from keeping the ship running. At this point, I think there might not even be a very strong impetus to say, ‘let’s snatch up all the radicals and get their energy.’
Have you talked to Nic Beuret? I would talk to him. He’s from London and doing his PhD at Leicester. I had a conversation with him and Ken Wark. We were talking about the question ‘why are radicals valuable to the university?’ Their basic answer was: it’s not that there’s something special about having radical politics. It’s more like, we’re organizers; we know how to do shit. We know how to work a room, organize a meeting, organize a seminar, put together a journal series. It was more about how the university likes people who come out of politics as organizers because they know how to do things – not because of some sort of metaphysical value of being a radical. For instance, a conservative radical organizer could be just as useful for the same reason. The labor and skills involved in politics interest the university more so than the content.
CW: Do you see that as presenting a problem for radical movements? A kind of sucking up of people with organizing skills into the university, and putting those skills to use for keeping the university and the wider capitalist education system smoothly functioning—and also their becoming careerist cogs within that machine rather than using their position to get resources for radical movements?
Stevphen: There’s certainly some of that. You could have a somewhat similar question about being involved in almost any form of labor. There are certain ways in which credit is very individualized, like you were saying in terms of people becoming very careerist that can induce them to neglect the collectivities and projects that they came out of in favor of, ‘I’m just doing this…’ This might be something that’s not necessarily specific to just academic labor but is fairly common to different forms of labor today in which there’s a much higher subjective involvement of the person who is doing the work. You could see something quite similar in, say, forms of creative labor, artistic labor, programming—forms of production in which there’s a much higher level of attachment of the worker in terms of what they’re doing, in terms of creating a sense of self through the work. And academic labor is a part of that.
There’s this quite nice distinction that Precarias a la Deriva make: they talk about different compositions of labor today, and they say, ‘okay, the thing you have to realize here is that it is quite easy to look at these different forms of labor through the sort of job skills involved.’ So, they’re doing this critique of ideas of immaterial labor. They’re saying, well, this is wrong. What we should look at instead is: what kinds of antagonistic subjectivities are attached to different kinds of labor, or what kinds of revolt and refusal are attached to different kinds of work. They say there are basically three. If you have repetitive or dull factory work, people tend to just outright refuse. That’s where you get the massive strikes, work freezes, and the like: this sort of classic workers’ politics of the 60s and 70s. For forms of work where there is a high subjective involvement in the work process—academic work being a good example—refusal tends to take the form of critique. You don’t stop working; you just sort of constantly critique your own work process. Two years ago now, there were two one-day strikes around pension reform. During one of the strike days, I went home and wrote a grant application. You can’t stop working, even when you’re not working you’re still working, or you end up dreaming in code. To finish off the typology, the third type of work includes forms that are invisibilized, such as sites of black market work. In these kinds of invisibilized work, refusal takes the form of a demand for dignity.
There’s something interesting about this, particularly as it creates a way to see how the refusal of work is embodied differently across varying compositions of labor. It also gives you an interesting angle on forms of work where it seems like you can’t stop. You can’t break the tools because your production of self is so involved in those tools that you can’t see how to do that. I think that’s one of the questions that is posed by academic labor. [read Stevphen’s more in-depth discussion in his essay, “Nobody Knows What an Insurgent Body Can Do: Questions for Affective Resistance”]
CW: I find useful your writing about the importance of affect in making radical organizing effective. In thinking about that kind of work, which is so bound up with the production of the self, is having a more affect-focused organizing approach a way of dealing with how these kinds of work are harder to refuse? Do you see that kind of collective production of self through building affective, caring relationships between organizers as a way to organize in more effectively resistant ways?
Stevphen: I’d like to think so, but I’m not exactly sure how. I’ll put it this way: (and how to say this without sounding bitter or disillusioned?) before I got a full-time academic job, I had no idea that 30 to 40 percent of your time would be spent doing admin work—processing forms, committee meetings, basically bureaucracy. In some ways, these are forms of work that are just almost like any other kind of office work. And so, in some ways, I think there’s nothing particularly special about them; it would seem that you could approach them how you would build collectivity around these other forms of working. But the particular work processes can be so segmented. Take admissions decisions—I’ve done post-grad and undergraduate admissions for my department—if you look at the amount of labor that goes into admissions decisions for the whole department, it’s massive. It involves a lot of time and effort amongst different people. But if you look at the physical work process of how it happens, it’s people sitting by themselves at a desk, looking at a screen. It would be valuable to re-introduce a sort of collectivity or affective connection in that process, but I’m not sure how yet.
CW: This reminds me of something I was talking about with Jesse Goldstein. He had this idea of splitting tenure-track positions. So, we’d have a radical academic collective, and let’s say, one of us would get a tenure-track position, and then all of us in the collective would intentionally split the work involved in that. If the position came with, say, a 3-3 course teaching load, we’d each teach a class, and whatever administrative work we’d have to do we’d split up in some equal way, and we’d have discussions about how we’re splitting it up. This might seem like an impossible idea, but I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.
Stevphen: There are some folks at Leicester who have already done that. Two of the people I know split a position 20/80. So, the one person is at Leicester most of the time and the other person lives in an organic commune in France most of the year, and just comes in when she wants to teach a series of seminars. I think that’s worked fairly well. As far as I can tell, they applied together for the position and put it up front that this is how they’d split it, and Leicester seemed fine with that. I don’t know if there are many other places that would be willing to do as such, although it does seem that is becoming more common.
The problem that I would see is that it would end up being an excuse to extract a full-time of labor from each person. I could see that it could be quite interesting if done well, but the ‘done well’ thing would be tricky, and it would be a bit more complicated just trying to coordinate the various work involved in the splitting.
CW: I’d like to ask you about some of your other projects. You mentioned there are some things you’ve been working on in the past couple years. Can you say a bit about these projects?
Stevphen: Changing nappies. That’s been a big one. But seriously, a lot of effort has gone into having a new baby, especially if you live in a different country from either of your families. Project-wise, I’ve mainly been doing publishing work for the past two years. I found, having now hit thirty, I’ve discovered that I do not necessarily want to go to sixteen meetings per week, so I’ve been focusing on fewer projects: mainly Autonomedia and Minor Compositions stuff, and spending more time on that. I’m still involved with ephemera, but that’s publishing as well.
Radical Pedagogy in a Business School
CW: Could you tell me a bit about your teaching approach? Do you try any sorts of radical pedagogy? What’s your take on the classroom as a potential organizing space?
Stevphen: I would say it’s changed somewhat over the past few years, particularly as a result of where I am working, in a business school. When I first started, I was like, ‘okay, now I’m going to bring radical pedagogy into the classroom. We’re going to learn about the Zapatistas, we’re going to learn consensus process, and run the class by consensus.’ I was trying to bring a lot of things into the classroom, and sometimes I found that it could alienate students and actually would shut down the encounters or discussions they wanted to have. What I’ve done more recently is try to, let’s say, give them the materials that seem like straight-up business sources, and work from them in a more critical direction. Say, ‘okay, fine, we’re going to read Adam Smith, and what does Adam Smith say here? Well, let’s just talk about it. Who was Adam Smith? Where was he coming from? What was the context? What does he exclude from his argument? What would it mean to take Milton Friedman exactly as he says? I’m mostly giving materials that seem, to me, quite traditional but because they are recognized by the students as, ‘oh, okay, of course we would read this guy,’ it’s almost like it gives you more room to work in discussions.
Also, part of how I’ve tried to re-visit the way I teach is, not surprisingly, given these various financial, economic, social crises of the past few years, a lot of the students were nervous about, like, ‘oh, what am I going to do now? Where am I going? What is my future?’ And this is especially difficult for business students strangely enough. They had always operated on a basis before, of, like, ‘oh, things are great. I’m going to have a business school degree. I’ve got nothing to worry about. … Oh, crap, I do!’ So, it’s like, how do you work with their affective states of anxiety and dis-ease about their own future, and find the politics through working through that, rather than coming to them with fully formed solutions? They’re almost thinking in terms of, ‘crap, oh what do I do, what do I do?’ And it’s about working with that. Which is not to say it’s easy by any means!
CW: Have you found any good techniques for eliciting their sense of anxiety about the future? How do you approach that in the classroom?
Stevphen: A lot of the teaching I do here is quite large group teaching. Last fall I taught Employee Relations and there were 200 students. This fall I’ll teach Business Ethics and it’ll have 200 students. The forms of engagement you get to have with a room of 200 people are fairly limited. Perhaps there are some very clever people who are good at drawing out discussions in that format. I haven’t found ways to do that yet. That’s more for small group seminars. If you don’t have classes of 200, then you have weekly seminars with, let’s say, groups of 20. So, those sorts of discussions are brought up more in smaller groups. What I’ve found is this: tell a good number of jokes, try to be friendly and approachable, and just be honest about, ‘okay, here’s what’s happening, here’s what I think of it, here are the difficulties.’ And people will start talking. Usually, if you seem approachable and friendly, they’ll start talking.
Read the second part of the interview here—Excavating Minor Histories: Autonomous publishing for movements.
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 life.”