Saturday, January 25, 2014


It is that time again.  Theoretical Weekends at Scission has arrived.

Since 1993, Obrist has conducted hundreds of interviews with folks from here, there and everywhere.  He is a curator, I know that.  Beyond that I can't say much about the man who interviews Antonio Negri below.  

The interview itself covers lots of ground and I don't really have an introduction.  All I can say is that if you hate Negri, you probably won't want to waste your time here.  If you like him, you might.  If you don't know how you feel about the guy, this might help.

Whatever the case may be, the following is from e-flux.

By the way, I've been planning to read this myself for quite a while.  I guess now is as good a time as any.

In Conversation with Antonio Negri

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist: The last time we met was with Rem Koolhaas in 2001, and we spoke about what could be called your “city projects.” What are you working on related to this subject at the moment?
Antonio Negri: I can start by saying that while discussing the concept of the multitude, Michael Hardt and I found ourselves facing the question of the city, which we brought up as part of the question of the territorialization of the multitude, the space in which the multitude deploys itself. To be honest, I think that while a number of problems started to clear up after we wrote Multitude, others remained in the shadow, like this fundamental question of space. For example, we are very interested in this problem of the multitude’s temporality, that is, of transformative moments and raising consciousness, or the problems that arise the moment we think about what it means to “make” multitude, to construct it as a singularity that tends towards shared, common projects. But the big problem we have yet to consider concerns space. Because we still require a place in which this multitude will exist—not only a network through which it communicates, but also the power to decide its living conditions. This power to decide plays a role in developing a relationship between the multitude and state structures or institutions, and from a negative perspective this means an uproar; from a constructive perspective it means revolution. Now we could say that today this space is the contemporary metropolis. Half of the world’s population, maybe more, now lives in cities. The population itself, we could say, is a refugee in these cities. In fact, we may now have one to two thirds of the world’s population living in cities of over one million inhabitants.
HUO: And these numbers rise every year!
AN: That’s right! And if the question of the metropolis is central, then in my opinion it is because there is a structure of the common that is specific to it. This structure could be described as the tension that exists between the demand for services on the one hand, and the withholding of these services, or the refusal to consent to this demand, on the other. The refusal endangers the demand, and the claims made to it. And this demand becomes more and more important. I actually believe that two processes are currently underway. The first is a definitive neutralization of the traditional working class, which has allowed for the distinct working-class space—the factory—to be destroyed. But it goes beyond this to something more general, because we could also say that this disqualification has marked the disappearance of the productive space as a clearly defined one. The second process concerns the illegal reconstruction of urban space, the spaces not controlled by anyone, that are constituted by successive waves of immigration and by extremely profound cultural mixes. And all this produces two vast, enormous spaces, where all the energy of work, of construction, of sociality and solidarity, is centered.
HUO: So we could say that these are two parallel movements.
AN: Yes, because they are both intertwined with forms of biopolitical control. It is clear that they are not simply processes of controlling the conditions or the organization of work, but rather of transforming living conditions in such a way that only work and its organization become important. So when we look at the metropolis, we find ourselves facing a dialectical movement unique to our time. But it is dialectic in a unique sense, because, in truth, these are processes that lead nowhere. These changes are made regardless of any communal frame. Each time we arrive in places shaped by these processes, we experience a sort of vertigo. I was recently in Caracas, where in a city of about seven or eight million people you have between seven and nine hundred thousand living in what we could call neighborhoods, or “defined” spaces, whereas about six or seven million people live in totally chaotic conditions.
HUO: And it isn’t even clear exactly how many people there are…
AN: Yes, we don’t even have a precise figure! When flying over the city, I was absolutely struck by seeing the city everywhere, absolutely everywhere! Meaning that from about 1200 meters above the ground, you can see only the city, and nothing but the city! Everything is occupied! And what’s more, the space is taken up by something that is totally wild, completely uncontrolled!
HUO: Could we describe this in terms of “self-organization”? Of a kind of development that evades all forms of planning?
AN: Yes, it’s completely self-organized. And in Brazil it’s the exact same thing.

Some coordinators of the landless worker’s movement meet to discuss plans for the encampment, Pará, Brazil, 1999.
HUO: You mentioned earlier that you have been traveling extensively in South America.
AN: Yes, I’ve traveled there especially often in the past couple of years. I must say that I completely agree with Niall Ferguson, who has said that the new political context the Bush administration was responding to was not one of large-scale terrorism engendered by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East—a situation that they themselves created—but the fact that, for the first time since the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 Latin America was completely independent. And now, if Mexico votes Left, it will no longer be only Latin America, but Latin America and Mexico! I wrote a little book about this that was published in Brazil and in Argentina, called Glob-AL, where the A and L stand for America Latina. In this book, I consider the crisis of the ideologies of subordination and dependence, which were classic themes in the traditional theories of the Latin American Left, and I note that the goal has now become to theorize the interdependence, already constituted, of this new continental front. And all this goes hand in hand with the other emerging position, which considers Bush’s or the United States’ coup d’état to have failed. The next horizon we will have to prepare for is that of this continental pluralism—one that is extremely varied and passionate, but still poses a small problem for me, which is that we have yet to understand this problem in Europe. And I find this fact regrettable!
HUO: How do you see Europe in opposition?
AN: I don’t know exactly—I’m still consumed by all that happens there, and I haven’t reflected on this question properly. But if we return to this question of the metropolis, we can see that we’ll have to start by defining it as the place where the transformation of capitalism has, in fact, ruined its own tradition, in the sense that there is no longer any difference between industrial profit, real estate surplus, and financial structures. At the same time, the city has become a full-fledged productive element—and the metropolis even more so. We see that even the most intelligent men have always considered the city to be a positive externality, meaning that we consider the city to have established conditions in which industrial operations and processes could be organized, developed, and extended. But today the city, and the metropolis in particular, have become directly productive. And what exactly does this production consist of? I would say that it consists of the movement of people—it is in the construction of urban cooperation, in the liberty and the imagination of people who define and provoke it. Look at Brazil. They say “But there is so much misery…” And of course, it’s true! But I would respond, “Then go look what is in that misery.” Because there is an incredible capacity for creation in that misery, in those favelas. Music, human connections, and, of course, at times, deadly connections as well. But there is an enormous creativity that produces new things, and that creativity does not come without negative aspects. But the problem of murder and crime, and more generally the problem posed by the fact that certain expressions of this wild creativity are dangerous, is evidently the problem of order and disorder. And I never thought that this multitude could exist without order. Make no mistake: I have never been an anarchist.
HUO: Yes, we spoke about this the other day, when I mentioned certain urbanists who have reclaimed anarchist thought, and you said that you do not support anarchism in the cities under any terms.
AN: I am not an anarchist from any standpoint, regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. Based on forms of self-organization that are becoming more and more collective, I think there is a “common” that grows stronger and stronger. We always have to create institutions! But creating institutions also means creating forms of cities, because an institution is not a metaphysical representation or an ideal archetype! It is among other, concrete forms that the city has to be constructed, that the metropolis can constitute the common. And it goes without saying that I am not only speaking here of buildings! There are, of course, buildings, but there is also communication—the lines, the spaces, and so forth. Creating an institution means creating a public space.
Anti-riot police, Caracas.
HUO: Speaking of the nature of this public space, in Multitude you describe the ongoing obliteration of the notion of “exteriority,” which also seems to hint at the disappearance of the idea of a single center. But how is this applied concretely in the city? It seems to me that it is no longer a question of center and periphery…
AN: Well, we need to pay attention to this problem. It’s true that there is no longer a center, but it is also true that there is what we can call a “deviant” center. This, for example, is the American center that raises its head in times that are more and more aberrant. I have a lot of respect and sympathy for the democratic tradition of the United States, which is something very profound and something I am very fond of. Still, we can no longer ignore the harmful effects that the conservative and religious culture in the United States has brought about. It’s a very dramatic change, and its disastrous effect has been to isolate the libertarian experience of American culture from any form of global consciousness and even from its own capacity to intervene in the world while respecting people’s liberty. The export of democracy has been transformed into a new form of imperialism that has surpassed anything we could imagine! What’s more, it has produced a kind of imperialism that has been revealed to work against the interests of capitalism, which it was supposed to serve. That is the absurdity of the situation. So the big question is not about what we can do in a world that no longer has a center, but about knowing how the struggles for liberation—the liberation of people, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism—and how the movement of the multitude, as the fundamental thing to which all other forms of struggle subordinate themselves, can redirect the processes of communication and rebellion. From this point of view I remain a dedicated Zapatista! There are ways in which the claims—the forms of organization and the institutional forms—will build themselves. Today there are still campaigns around this, and we have to lead these campaigns! It’s very clear, particularly here in France with the problem of the banlieues, and the problem of the European suburbs in general. These are problems that we are going to have to face very soon. Next year, I am thinking of transforming the seminar I teach at the Collège International de Philosophie into a sort of “nomad seminar” that will circulate among Parisian banlieues.
Women Zapatistas.
HUO: So the seminar will be delocalized to the suburbs…
AN: Yes, yes! To Saint-Denis, Evry, Nanterre, all those places. And it will respond to connections with the groups of people who work there. But it’s not only there that the problem of the metropolis will become apparent, because as we speak of the metropolis and its problems, as we speak of the suburbs, the most surprising thing is the total lack of discourse. You saw what happened after the riots in France in 2006: once again, we talk a lot and say nothing. And I must say in particular that left-wing thought has not differed much from that on the Right. The right wing claims that it is not its role or aim to search for alternatives. It is there because it wants to maintain order, so we shouldn’t expect anything else from it. Whereas the Left…
HUO: Yes, I was in Paris then, and like everyone, I think, I was amazed by the deafening silence of the Left…
AN: That’s it, they are content to remain silent. But how will any connection between this multitude and the new democratic project be established without the idea that things need to be built from the bottom up? This movement has to come from the bottom. Because with the riots we really touched the soft underbelly of all the contradictions in our society—which is essentially Fordist, but as a model this is currently undergoing a serious crisis, because it did not succeed in allowing the new generations to play a role in democracy. They called people from around the world to work in their factories, but once the factories started to close down, they found themselves with ghettos on their hands. And they had neither the imagination nor the ability to place all these people into vibrant circulation; they did not know how to use all the potential creativity that was there. They constantly speak of a “decline,” but the only decline I see is that of their own inventiveness and ability. It’s the fact that they did not succeed or that they did not even want to take the elites from those countries and place them into real circulation. And now we need to think about how to use this metamorphosis that the political powers up to now have not known how to engage productively with. It’s a metamorphosis that finds its outlet in racism, that now has to face the problem of violence, apartheid, and reactionary Islamists. But I believe that all these are secondary to the fundamental problem of how to find ways of recreating an authentic democratic circulation and free movement.
HUO: Which implies the question of the transformation of work…
AN: As always. I am a Marxist, you know. I always think that social activity is the most important thing! And I believe that all the people who talk about these problems without saying this are hypocrites. Because they know very well that social activity is the real problem, and yet they do not speak of it. After this the problem of poverty and wealth, meaning, the difference between those who work and those who exploit, will remain as Machiavelli, my patron and my master, described.
HUO: Yes, we see Machiavelli here on the table…
AN: There’s a great piece here that I reread the other day, a text, Machiavelli says, “that is good to remember for all its arguments, which speak to the proclaimed equality of men.” In it we read how one of the leaders of the 1300 revolt, a man of the plebs, “one of the most daring and experienced, in order to animate the rest,” declared:
Strip us naked, and we shall all be found alike. Dress us in their clothing, and they in ours, we shall appear noble, they ignoble—for poverty and riches make all the difference.
And it concludes with mistrust of the political game:
Small crimes are chastised, but great and serious ones rewarded … We have no business to think about conscience; for when, like us, men have to fear hunger, and imprisonment, or death, the fear of hell neither can nor ought to have any influence upon them. If you only notice human proceedings, you may observe that all who attain great power and riches, make use of either force or fraud; and what they have acquired either by deceit or violence, in order to conceal the disgraceful methods of attainment, they endeavor to sanctify with the false title of honest gains. Those who either from imprudence or want of sagacity avoid doing so, are always overwhelmed with servitude and poverty; for faithful servants are always servants, and honest men are always poor; nor do any ever escape from servitude but the bold and faithless, or from poverty, but the rapacious and fraudulent.1
You see, this is Marxism! And we find almost exactly the same thing in Spinoza, and with Nietzsche, and indeed in Marx! We actually find this in the writing of all intelligent writers, this understanding of the fact that it is poverty and wealth that make the world go round. Poverty more so, it is the key, it is the salt of the earth; poverty and love are the two most important things. We will have to construct a city on poverty and love. And, in the background is this question of how we can move from poverty to wealth by passing through love. In fact, this is a question we should pose to architects.
Bust of Machiavelli, Pallazo Vecchio, Florence.
HUO: That would be an idea for a future city. But to return a little to urbanism and art—
AN: You want to talk about utopia!
HUO: Yes, but before we go back to utopia, I’d first like to speak a little about this book titled Art et Multitude. One of the things that most interested me in this book is what you say about the transformation of work. You wrote that the transformation of work was your key to reading transformations that took place in art. I would love to hear more about this.
AN: I don’t know—for me it’s clear. All of Surrealism is linked to Fordization, as is all that “rationalist art.” But I should explain what I mean by “rationalist art” such as that of the Bauhaus. Suppose that I recognize two fundamental processes: on the one hand, rationalization, and on the other, materialization. The latter gives us Picasso, and the former—Gropius! And I think the history of modern art is made like this, though I am aware that this sounds absolutely simplistic, but these are the two great foundations for my interpretation. Picasso marks the peak of a tradition of “excavation,” of the heart, the soul, of modern reality—this reality characterized by the refusal of the image as it stands, by the desire to construct the image of reality or realize new representations. And on the other hand, we have this rationalization, and I think that these two things go together. Our political milieu is constructed in a similar way, born out of the intensification of the rational, out of humankind’s capacity. The outcome of this, I think, is Beuys. He suggests the magnificent climax of a destroyed figurative vision on the one hand, and on the other, a material construction of a new world, along with all the dimensions of finitude and disillusion that this new world brings with it. It is an epic and heroic cooperation that exists in the dissolution of objects. But then what happens in their reconstruction? I know very well that this is better handled by a specialist, which I am not, so I cannot explain my joy to you here. I rely on nothing but the emotion that I feel when I find myself in an exhibition. I am not like you priests of art—priests who know all the sins of artists! That is my confession…!
HUO: Well, one fascinating aspect of Art et Multitude is the number of very concrete reviews of visits to exhibitions in the book. I remember that we ran into each other at the 2003 Venice Biennial when you went to see “Utopia Station,” and in the book you also mention the preceding Biennial in 2001, and how you were amazed by the lack of formal innovation. You bring up notions of transcendence, of the “death of God”…
AN: Living in Venice, we are able to follow the Biennial quite regularly. From time to time there are ones that are truly extraordinary, even if at other times they’re not as solid, and we cannot see why they are so necessary. To be honest, I believe that they should be held every ten years rather than every two, as they are now! But for me, following the developments of art has always been a matter of trying to anticipate a little of what happens, and I have to say that there is a rationality in this disappearance of, well, “rationality.” Though this term came to me on its own, I shouldn’t use it, as it’s too similar to categories used in historicism: “There is a certain rationality,” “There is a certain tendency…” I prefer not to use these terms, but how should I say it? I’m trying to direct us towards this idea that society expresses itself in art up to a point where a decision determines a form. I am particularly interested in the notion ofkunstwollen—this capacity to transform the social and cultural content of a time into an image. But into one particular image, meaning, an image that produces, or, in other words, into a style. This is a typically Viennese idea, associated with authors like Riegl and Dvorak. But what interests me in this is that there is something analogous to the idea of a political decision. This kunstwollen could be understood as something that illustrates in an exemplary fashion that which is the real political decision. I had old teachers who taught me this, old Byzantinists who identified with Riegl and Bettini! These are old traditions of schooling that were very vibrant in Padua when I was young. So I am convinced that all of this is very important, from the perspective of a need to reconstruct the phenomenon of the decision, which is what interests me most today. How do we reach a decision? The decision to begin is never something personal, it is never private and secret, which is to say that it’s never something fascist. In this sense, it is never a man like Hitler who decides. Every decision is literally determined by the capacity to absorb a mass of decisions, a mass of impressions and reactions. It’s a response to the great contradiction with which we are always faced, the question of how we can make the multitude into a singularity. We all agree on this point. And today we work in the singular, and there too we agree that there is a hiatus. But this does not mean that mediation is not possible or that the contradiction is by definition insurmountable. Because this mediation exists, it lies in the notion of the decision, in that which allows us to pose the pertinent question of how this ensemble of singularities constitutes the common, an ontological basis. But how do we move from that to the decision? Well, there is always this old idea of the party, the state, the “thing that unites,” it’s a real fetish and it’s a horrible idea! In lieu of this, what we need is that which art has already done with the kunstwollen!
Phillippe Halsman, Jump Book, 1959. Portrait of Walter Gropius.
HUO: So art is a model for what we should try to do elsewhere…
AN: Yes! It’s the model of a totality that builds, that arrives at having this capacity to concentrate all the forces that are already there on one point… You see that it’s not this stupid idea of wanting to use aesthetics. It’s like the mouse that the cat chases—we are the cat and we run after the decision. And this connects to the question you posed earlier about the relationship between art and modes of production. This also involves a rapport between these two things. Now that we are within these singularities that rationalism produced, we have to find a way out—the construction of these places like Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, and so forth, is no longer possible.
HUO: Yes, this old model of the “master plan” where the space for self-organization does not exist. But this question of the revolution becomes interesting. It’s a question that art students ask themselves a lot, and it bothers young artists too: one asks oneself whether there is still a space for resistance.
AN: Today the elements around which we can create points of reference—even points of resistance to the market—are the ones built on the land of the common. Because the common basically signifies that which costs nothing, that which is necessary, that which is participatory, that which is productive, and that which is free! And I believe that there are new use values already present in our common, and that these values can be easily spotted. Just think of the metropolis, where ninety percent of what we do are common things that cost us nothing—or at least could cost nothing if we made the effort to make them so…
HUO: Starting with the air…
AN: Air, of course, but water too. Generally, there are museums, libraries, cinemas, these are all things that cost money, but in ninety percent of the cases they do not generate direct profit, they are “free of charge.” This is becoming an increasingly fundamental element in what we call the “salary” or the “revenue” of citizenship. I don’t know whether the Left will win in Italy, but I know that half of the Italian regions have already established welfare programs with the intention of lowering the “universal revenues of citizenship.” It’s a process that has begun and needs to grow in scale. Our battleground has increasingly become concerned with the biopolitical reproduction of populations. All these “free” things are on offer in the metropolis because, fundamentally, it is the place where the multitude recognizes itself and starts to struggle. It starts to gain consciousness.
HUO: Which brings me to the notion of utopia. In Art et Multitude, I found a very interesting passage in a letter dated December 24, 1988, addressed to a certain “Silvano,” in which you discuss two equally illusory possibilities that constitute, according to you, the two dead ends in which an artist could find him- or herself. The first is that of utopia, and the second that of terrorism. You say that neither one of these two possibilities is sufficient, and that the only possibility for one who has traversed the “desert of abstraction” is that of “constituent power.” I would love to hear you speak more about this. You wrote this almost twenty years ago, and I wonder whether your point of view on the notion of utopia has stayed the same. Or has it has changed?
AN: You know, my book on constituent power became a “classic” in South America, whereas books likeEmpire receive far less attention, and are even opposed by the Left, which in South America is mainly composed of patriots who favor the idea of the nation state. What reaches them the most—and I’m speaking of people like Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales—is the constituent dimension of power, which I try to deal with in that book.2
HUO: And these are, in any case, the people you are in dialogue with, no?
AN: Yes. These are very important people in many respects. They are foreign to our own experience, to our own culture, and that makes it all the more important and more interesting to speak to them. This idea of spotting constitutive processes that span multitudes—which are not “masses” or “crowds,” but a complex articulation of a poor social fabric—is something that touches them enormously. Now that I’ve said this, I’ll go back to the question of utopia. Utopia is first and foremost an extremely realist thing. There is utopia when there is construction, or a revelation of the common. To follow up on what we’ve already discussed, an example would be to give the favelas’ inhabitants property rights over the land they already inhabit.
HUO: And these are very concrete actions.
AN: I became quite close with Gilberto Gil In Brazil after we met in the context of very concrete government projects trying to create open access to computers and the internet. It’s the same process, though it may not be immediately apparent. These communication networks are also a sort of favela.
HUO: A virtual favela!
AN: Yes, virtual! And an extremely important one. The other utopian domain is that which concerns how we can transform the redistribution of wealth into something active, a form of production. For example, both in Brazil and here, when you assume power, you immediately find yourself with wealth that you can redistribute. In Brazil or Venezuela, it’s the revenues from oil, but doing that does not create a new society—it’s simply handing out money! The problem with doing that is that it neglects other forms of cooperation that these funds could go towards. What are these forms? For rural communities, for example, such funds could allow for the establishment of literacy initiatives or stable and systematic medical assistance—things that already exist, but most often in backwards or marginalized ways. In Venezuela, for example, there are thirty thousand Cuban doctors who have been educated in Cuba’s medical schools, and they are some of the best doctors in the world. All the NGOs in the world go to Cuba to prepare themselves for anything involving tropical illnesses and other illnesses associated with these climates. All this is very important, of course, but what we still need here are places—if we implemented universities, hospitals, and cultural centers in these areas, if the value of people’s lives was placed directly into economic circulation, it would totally alter the equation. But this has been an irresolvable problem: how can the enormous investments that have taken the form of direct aid be translated into dynamics that are productive and transformative? I think it can be useful to compare the situation in Venezuela to the one in Iran.
HUO: In Iran?
AN: Yes. In Iran they continue to practice this form of redistribution that seems close to charity, while the same people remain in power. Because the priests stay priests, no matter what the religion! And as they are actually the patrons, there is no way for this to change. In Venezuela, it is not priests who are in power, though there is obviously an oligarchy that may perhaps get what it wants, namely for the United States to intervene and restore the previous order. But today, the enormous difference between Iran and Venezuela is that in Iran the mullahs have “the weapons and the money,” as Machiavelli said, whereas in Venezuela the people hold the weapons. This is not to say that the situation in Venezuela could not give rise to a new form of fascism or a particularly virulent populism, just that for the moment this is not the case and the institution remains open. The other thing is that in Iran, though the arms are held by those in power in order to uphold the revolution, the money is distributed without utopia. On the other hand, in Venezuela this is the decisive element—the money is full of utopia.
HUO: And if the money is “full of utopia,” and is, as we said, part of a concrete utopia, could we talk about a utopia that produces reality?
AN: Oh, yes! And also in relation to the production of subjectivity.

Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, 1972.
HUO: I would like to consider the question of groups and movements in which these utopias can be proposed. This year, we did an interesting project with Rem Koolhaas in which we tried to create a “portrait of a movement.” In the 1960s, there was a very important architectural movement in Japan called Metabolism, unique for having tried to establish a link between urbanism and biology—they wanted to create “metabolic cities” on the water…
AN: Metabolist organisms?
HUO: Yes, exactly. And so Rem Koolhaas and I found and interviewed each of the members of this movement and assembled accounts by critics, architects, industrial designers, and others, which together make up a sort of portrait of this movement, which we will publish as a book. The interesting thing is that even if they say that they were not exactly a coherent movement—there were never any concrete organized activities like those of Surrealism or Dada, for example, with manifestos, conditions for membership, or anything of the sort—the fact remains that there was a kind of pragmatic convergence of points of view that met spontaneously in a given moment. And meanwhile, we realize that in art or architecture today, movements have become very rare.
AN: But as you know, I’m neither an art historian nor an architectural historian! I don’t know what I could tell you about this…
HUO: Yes, but I think there is a certain link to your work. We talk often about Operaismo, and I would be curious to know how you see the movement that your work brings about, whether you imagine something organized and structured enough to express itself in a certain moment through a manifesto. Or is it something a bit more like Metabolism, based on a convergence of views that is more spontaneous and less concrete? And, just briefly, how do you see Operaismo today? I know that in his preface to Grammar of the Multitude, Sylvère Lotringer says that none of it would have been possible without Russia’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and he mentions you and Mario Tronti as the originators of the movement, but I would love to have your personal viewpoint.
AN: Actually, we have to be careful about what we say with regard to “Operaismo,” because it was first and foremost a sort of political activism—but an activism conducted by intellectuals. It was intellectuals who, at the moment they became activists, began to produce.
HUO: Yes, they did both things at once.
AN: Yes, and it is exactly what we were in Italy, the generation of—how can I say this? Take the current editor of Corriere della Sera. Like many other individuals who work in the media, he comes from this generation of the rupture at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the ‘60s. And Hungary was important for this generation, because it marked the moment of crisis for the Communist Party in Italy.
HUO: Lotringer later talks about 1961 as a very important year as well, but what happened between 1956 and 1961?
AN: There was Renato Panzieri, who was the secretary general of the Italian Socialist Party a little bit before that. When he left his post there he became editor in chief of Quaderni Rossi. He went to Turin, where we could say that he was essential to organizing the intervention groups at Fiat.
HUO: And that was in the late 1950s?
AN: Yes. Tronti was then the secretary of the Communist Party in Rome, and I was the secretary of the Socialist Federation in Padua. We found ourselves working with Panzieri at Quaderni Rossi, a journal aiming to revive political discourse with the question of the factories and the workers, shifting the struggle from the network between parties and syndicates to those who worked on the assembly line, also with an attempt to reveal the contradictions embedded in forms of struggle. At the time there was no sociology in Italy, and no sociology of the worker’s world in general. Sociology was one of the things that the Fascist Party had categorically rejected, and as a result there was no teaching of it, no Italian school of sociology. And we wanted to introduce both sociology and struggle at the same time; we needed the sociology in order to struggle. And the most amazing thing is that we succeeded! It was very impressive. I always return to the experience of the artist, because that’s what it was—to succeed in understanding the language of the workers, to make a leaflet and find that is has a direct effect on them, there was something miraculous about it—you cannot imagine! It wasn’t the creation of merchandise with a price, but the creation of a war machine that destroyed every notion of price! It was really impressive. I also remember that in 1963, my wife at the time and I spent the summer in a village where there were petrochemical factories employing thirty thousand workers, and there too we made leaflets and distributed them, and the workers announced: “tomorrow we will not work.” That was the very first time that the factory went on strike, they had never done it before.
HUO: That was the magic of beginnings, in a way.
AN: And I was convinced that it was impossible—I didn’t even wake up to go to the factory that morning! But my wife did, and she came back fifteen minutes later—we lived there with the workers about fifty meters away from the factory—to tell me that they were all outside. Impossible! I went to see it, and saw that everyone was afraid. It was their first time, and no one knew how the factory would react once it was left to its own devices. There were about thirty chimneys, and at one point, a real “atomic bomb” erupted…
HUO: An explosion!
AN: Yes, a dreadful explosion from the accumulation of all this gas that they did not evacuate. I remember it as if it were yesterday… it was dawn, six in the morning—that’s utopia!
Translated from the French by Orit Gat.
© 2010 e-flux and the author

Friday, January 24, 2014


I remember how important visits were for me when I was in prison (or in jail).  I remember sitting in my cell at El Reno's Federal Correctional facility (where I spent my time before moving on to Leavenworth) back in the 70s on a Saturday morning waiting anxiously to hear my named called and told that I had a visitor (anxious because one couldn't be sure that something wouldn't go right and your visit or visitor would be denied).  I wore my good jeans, the ones I traded something for on the inside.  I never wore them at any other time, content enough with my prison khakis for, shall we say, everyday wear.  I knew that on my way to my visit I would be strip searched by guards and harassed in various ways.  Didn't matter, visits were worth it.  I knew how lucky I was to get visits every week or two.  Most of my fellow inmates didn't get any at all...or if they did, they were few and far between.

I really appreciated the people who drove several hundred miles down to Oklahoma to see me.  It wasn't that easy for them to do this, friends and family.   I did feel bad for my visitors having to interact with the prison, with the guards.  I knew that wasn't a good experience.  I knew the prison wanted everyone connected with those of us held captive to feel that they were captives, as well.  I knew this because I understood the ideology of prisons and because I had visited prisoners myself before I became one (and later, after I was released).  

The prison ideology, the mindset of those who run these places is that we are all criminals, those of us inside, and those connected to us on the outside...and we all should be treated as somewhat less than human.  The guards, I think, for the most part also just get off on the power.  I mean, seriously, I know we all need jobs, but just who becomes a prison guard anyway (we can save that discussion for another time).

The piece I am sharing with you for Scission Prison Friday today is about all this, about the petty and not so petty nonsense those who visit prisoners must go through just to see those about whom they care.  It is the personal story  of what a young African American confronted when she went to visit her brother at the age of twelve.  Nothing horrendous occurred or anything, but what is important here is what she learned from her experience and what we can also learn.

I am including the comments with the piece.

The following is from the Feminist Wire which I commend for the series and forum they have done on the prison industrial complex. The forum grew out of work around Mumia.  

As the authors write:

 The prison industrial complex both reflects and exacerbates many of our social ills. There is much work to be done, and we all must play a role.

*Pretty Sparkly Things: A Black Girl’s Encounter with the Prison Industrial Complex

January 23, 2014

Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things
I love clothes. I always have. As a black girl coming of age in the early 1990s, I was up on all the adornment trends: from asymmetrical haircuts and Cross Colours jeans to neckties and button down shirts (a la Boyz II Men). As any person who went to a predominantly black school knows, you had to come to school CLEAN! Even as twelve-year-old kids, style was our form of self-expression. It was our way of envisioning possibilities for our futures that could propel us beyond the de facto boundaries of our hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Dressing stylishly enabled us toimagine what it would be like to be doctors, ball players, lawyers, millionaire businesspersons, or entertainers. Because of our self-fashioned “fly code,” I was always looking for the next dope outfit to wear to school.

One day, my stylish Mother came home with a white denim short set that she’d bought for me. The shorts and matching top had these multicolored, beaded tassels—“pretty sparkly things”—dangling from them. I paired the outfit with a hot pink hat (like the ones Mayum Bialik used to wear on the T.V. show “Blossom”). I borrowed my mother’s hot glue gun (this was pre-Bedazzlers), and I glued rhinestones on a pair of my ballet flats. That next week, I strutted through my junior high school’s halls in my new fashion ensemble. I was the Hip Hop Coco Chanel, and this outfit was my masterpiece! It quickly became my signature look that I reserved for special occasions.

So naturally, when my Father told me we were going to visit my older brother who was serving time in prison, I knew exactly what I was going to wear: my outfit with the pretty sparkly things! I wanted my big brother, who was eight years my senior, to be proud of the young woman I was becoming while he was away. And, to me, this outfit symbolized not only my sartorial innovation but also my maturity and professional promise.

I had never been to a prison before. I was terrified. But, I put aside my fears so I could visit my hero. After riding in the car for what seemed like forever, we pulled into the prison’s visitor parking area. My heart began to pound; I could feel moisture forming on my palms. I wondered: “Would my brother recognize me? What was his life like in prison? Was it like the film South Central? Was my Brother like O.G. Bobby Johnson? If I go in, will they force me to stay…forever?!” All of these thoughts whizzed through my twelve-year-old brain as we approached the facility. The one thought that did not occur to me was that I might not be able to get into the prison because of what I chose to wear that day.

Another visitor informed my Father that the guards might not let me in because my pretty sparkly things violated the visitors’ dress code. I was crushed. The very outfit that I’d picked out to impress my big Brother with might be the very thing that kept me from even seeing him. My outfit was an affront to the prison industrial complex. And, the prison system responded by attempting to stifle and confine my creativity—reflected in the pretty sparkly things on my garment—the same way it had those of the millions of men and women held captive behind its bars. Tears welled in my eyes. I felt guilty that after driving nearly two hours to the prison, my Dad would not even get to see his son. I felt like I had wasted his gas and his time simply because I had to wear this outfit.

My father and the other adults began brainstorming as to what could be done about my clothes: perhaps they could give me someone else’s t-shirt to wear so that only the pretty sparkly things on my shorts would show. Maybe someone could wait in the car with me while my Father went inside…“So much fuss over a few pretty. sparkly. things.” I thought. Finally, the prison authorities decided I could go in. I could keep on my outfit, and I could go into the prison. We got to see my Brother, who put on a happy face for us despite the fact that he was likely ashamed that we had to visit him under such circumstances. I hugged him, and beamed with pride (though a little less brightly) as I showed off my outfit. I left the prison knowing that something in me had changed; I had lost a bit of my innocence that day. I had been exposed to a type of cruelty that I could not articulate at the time. I never visited my brother again. And, once he was released, we never discussed his stint in prison.

I recently shared my story with activist Lois Ahrens, who runs the Real Cost of Prisons Project, based in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she helped me put my personal experience into a broader context. I asked her, “Why did this happen? Why are guards so worried about what people wear?” Ahrens said:

Guards have power and prisoners and visitors have none. Everything a guard does reminds a prisoner or visitor of that dynamic… We are all presumed guilty because we are visiting someone who has been found guilty… Every visitor is suspect therefore whatever a visitor does or wears is suspect.

She then gave me a list of clothing and adornment items that have been banned from Massachusetts’ prisons:

Tassels                                           Cargo pants
 Open-toed shoes                          Bobby pins
Barrettes                                        Earrings
Sleeveless shirts                           Underwire bras
Zip-front shirts                              Shorts
Baggy or tight clothing                 Clothing w/ many pockets
Hoodies                                         Revealing or sheer clothing
Bodysuits of any type                    Wrap around shirts

This list represents the literal policing of people’s dressed bodies. The guards have the sole discretion to enforce these dress codes, and the list of banned garments varies from state to state. If you challenge a guard’s decision about your clothing, you could lose your visitation privileges for a year or more. These adornment regulations are part of a larger, problematic set of visitor body politics. Loved ones are subject to intrusive body searches, which can include: scanning; wanding; removing shoes, outer shirts, and belts; looking under your collar; examining your hair and mouth; and having search dogs sniff you. This process is only slightly less invasive than the full-body searches the prisoners are subjected to before they enter the visiting area.

The reality is that most people, like my family, do not know the rules regarding “proper” attire while visiting prisons. Nor are most people trying to sneak contraband to prisoners in their garments. Ironically, it is often the guards who operate smuggling rings (see here and here). Most people are simply trying to visit their loved ones, trying to make their family members feel their love through the prison’s Plexiglass windows. During our conversation, Ahrens noted the paradox between prisons’ treatment of loved ones and their stated views about the importance of family visits. She told me, “Every state claims it values ‘family reunification,’ yet every state makes visiting as degrading as can be imagined.” Ahrens is currently engaged in a battle with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC), pushing the DOC to change its policy regarding using search dogs during the visitor screening process.

Ford-Pretty Sparkly Things
Families often have to visit with their incarcerated loved ones through a Plexiglass window
But, what the fight for the humane treatment of prison visitors needs most is people willing to share their stories. Ahrens states, “Visiting a prison or a jail is traumatizing for everyone, which is why it is so important to do it and good to talk about it since there is so much stigma and shame with having a loved one in prison…which helps keep [the structure of power] in place.”

I’d pushed my traumatic visit to the prison into the recesses of my memory, until I started organizing this mass incarceration forum. At twelve years old, I did not have the language with which to articulate my trauma or to push back against the system. But, now I understand the power in speaking out about these issues. Incarcerated folks—regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty of the charges for which they have been convicted—belong to someone. They are loved. And, their loved ones deserve to be treated humanely when they visit. This essay was very difficult to write because this experience was so personal, and family dynamics can be hard to discuss in an open forum. But, it is important to illuminate how mass incarceration affects families. We are invisible victims of the prison system. I hope my story compels others to share their experiences and join in the fight against the prison industrial complex.

*This piece is written in loving memory of my big Brother who died tragically on December 16, 2012.
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  1. Regina N. Bradley on January 23, 2014 at 10:33 am
    Phenomenal per your usual, Tanisha.
    This piece invoked a pain in me I haven’t thought about for some years. I used to visit my father in prison. It was a traumatic experience. I think I’m most horrified by the light that would come on that let people know someone was coming to the visitation area. It was white and cold. It sanitized my excitement to see my father.
    One particular visit I remember fussing with my grandparents about why I couldn’t leave a picture I drew and painted for my daddy with him. My folks had to argue with the guards just to let me bring it in so he could see it. I worked hard on that piece. And it broke my heart – probably not as much as my daddy’s – that I couldn’t leave it with him.
    Thanks for this piece and bringing a sense of humanity to not only the prisoners but the family that has to jump through hoops to see them.
  2. susanofthenorth on January 23, 2014 at 10:36 am
    Thank you for sharing your experience-it opened my eyes.
  3. Juanita Crider on January 23, 2014 at 10:48 am
    This reminds me of when my cousin’s mother in law, who had loss her hair during chemotherapy, had to remove her head scarf when she went to visit her grandson in
    prison. She felt humiliated because they would not let her wear it during the visit even after she removed it for inspection.
  4. Kimberly George on January 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm
    Heartbreaking. Thank you, thank you, for your courage and energy to write this piece.
  5. A on January 23, 2014 at 8:34 pm
    Thank you for this.
  6. Rachel on January 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm
    What an honest story, and beutiful too. This series has been very helpful for me- and has inspired my desire to-reenage in advocacy…
    I was a volunteer chaplain at a prison (my goal was to just be with people not to convert or be with “offenders” or to have any religious agenda—but to be with them) for 2 years and I would routinely show up and the guards at the desk would pretend they couldn’t find the paperwork to sign in. Despite the fact that I could see it- in plain sight behind the guards.
    I was being policed, reminded who was in charge and controlled and recall being aware that this was the encounter with the system that inmates had all the time. I didn’t know how I would control my rage if I were to encounter that all the time….
    Thank you again for your wise words, profound work and inspiration.