Alberto Toscano is active on many fronts: he’s a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London; a writer of books such as Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea and The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuality between Kant and Deleuze; the translator of the French philosopher Alain Badiou; editor of the journal Historical Materialism; and occasional contributor to The Guardian and several journals of art and cultural criticism. His forthcoming book Cartographies of the Absolute, co-written with Jeff Kinkle, promises to be a significant contribution to the analysis of contemporary movements in capitalism. Toscano took time to discuss the motivation behind his recent work, the stakes of protests over the direction of higher education, and the liberation that comes with thinking past la pensée 68.
Michael Schapira: What are you up to in the new book and how did the partnership with Jeff Kinkle come about? Were you approached by the people at Zero Books, or did it seem like a natural home for book?
Alberto Toscano: The aim of the book is to provide a critical survey and a series of reflections on the proliferation of works in the visual arts, film and literature which seek — more or less explicitly — to tackle the representation of contemporary capitalism. More than a certain political turn in the arts, which has received copious if uneven commentary, we want to think about those works which try to “totalise” our current conditions, to thematize those facets of social existence which are particularly symptomatic of the trends and tensions in today’s political economy: financial markets, logistical complexes, commodity chains, and so on. The project can be thought of as a kind of stock-taking, a quarter of a century on, of Fredric Jameson’s proposal regarding an aesthetic that would respond to “the desire called cognitive mapping.” This is a desire for figurations of a system of compulsion and constraint that is ordinarily “invisible,”, yet all the more consequential and anxiety-inducing for all that. The collaboration with Jeff grew out of discussions about conspiracy theory as ‘the poor man’s cognitive mapping’ — another formulation of Jameson — in the context of his doctoral work on the current relevance of the work of Guy Debord.
We ended up collaborating on an article about The Wire,, detailing how much of its draw derived from the way in which it put the question of representing capital on the agenda — in particular in terms of the blockages that bar the way to understanding and challenging structures of violence and dispossession. The leitmotiv of “following the money” in the show testifies to this. If we reflect on the figure of the detective, Lester Freamon, we can see both the show’s sensitivity to webs of seemingly abstract, invisible and impersonal constraint, as well as all the problems involved in displacing the desire for cognitive mapping onto the subject of the police (an all too familiar tendency). On the basis of that piece, published online in Dossier, we decided that it would be good to pursue an ampler project, getting to grips with the common drives and shared impasses that we detected in a wide variety of works and domains of cultural production — from the recent novels of DeLillo and Gibson to the photography of manufactured landscapes, from artistic practices of cartography to narratives of urban crisis and dispossession.
Along the way we produced, for the journal Film Quarterly, a critical survey of cinematic responses to the ongoing economic crisis which rehearses some of the book’s approaches. The existence of the Zero imprint was one of the stimuli behind the project, as we knew it allowed for a shorter format, complete authorial freedom, and reflected a commitment to theoretical interventions that needn’t make concessions either to academic formats or to condescending “popularisation.” I’ve known the editors at Zero, especially Mark Fisher, for some time, so it was natural to approach them.
Cartographies of the Absolute is also the title of a blog. The relationship between the blog and the book is becoming a more complex one, as evidenced for example by Lars Iyer‘s novels or even Zero Books’ biggest seller, Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which grew out of writings on his K Punk blog. What kinds of advantages do you see to tightening this relationship verses a more traditional approach to writing a book like Fanaticism?
For us, the blog is really just an episodic notebook where to collect images, quotes and passing observations that may, or may not, make it into the book. I haven’t checked but I doubt it is read by many people at all, and we haven’t really done anything to publicise it. So it’s an entirely different entity than K-Punk. In that sense, it hasn’t personally affected how I go about writing, and the differences between Cartographies and Fanaticism are differences of theme and register, not medium: the difference between writing a kind of genealogy of the contemporary entanglements of politics and religion versus co-writing an essay on art, aesthetics, and capital.
Fanaticism was the history of a familiar concept, or at least the causes to which it was put in service of. Cartographies of the Absolute suggests something different, namely the generation of some new concepts to help us navigate a set of pressing contemporary questions. Why the turn towards cartography, which generates a less immediate set of associations than fanaticism?
The title — which we lifted from a characteristic spatialisation of Hegel in the preface to Jameson’s Geopolitical Aesthetic— is there to signal the peculiar conundrum, or even paradox, of talking about the representation of capital, rather than ultimately to assert the significance of cartography as a practice or metaphor (in a Heideggerian pastiche we could say that the essence of cartography is not cartographic…). If, by way of a risky homology, we treat capital as a kind of absolute, then it is something which, though it continuously calls for mapping, is fundamentally inimical to being contained and comprehended in a single overview. A contradictory totality, shifting in time and uneven in space, defies being embraced in a vision, or indeed known by a subject. This is why desire and failure are such recurring themes when one broaches the question of figuring a social and historical whole. That said, it is perfectly possible to make judgments — epistemic, aesthetic, political — distinguishing bad maps from good. Mystifying or kitsch totalisation — like the ones offered by the trend for melodramas of globalised finitude (from Babel to Mammoth, titles that are themselves indicative….) — can be set apart from the kind of dialectical optics, from Eisenstein to Allan Sekula, that folds formal and political reflection on problems of representation into its own representational practice.
You’ve been very involved in university politics at a number of levels, so I want to ask a few related questions. You are one of a number of thinkers who have attempted to theorize student protests, the conditions of academic labor in the wake of both austerity measures and the dominance of a managerial ethos in higher education, and the status of the humanities in the university. What are some of your major takeaways from the closure of the Middlesex philosophy department and the uptick in student protests in December of 2010? How have these events been a spur for your thinking more generally?
I would qualify “very involved.”. I take part in branch activities of my union, participate in strikes, have spoken at some anti-cuts conferences — but this is nothing more than what hundreds of other lecturers, staff and students do, and certainly much less than what key organisers of the anti-austerity movement have been doing. My kind of activity should be a basic minimum. I find the widespread tendency for people to refer to themselves as activists just because they go to demonstrations and join pickets to be a little unsavoury. As you say, I have tried to contribute to a collective reflection on how the mutation of the university is connected to shifts in the framing of work, and what this may entail for political action. These are occasional reflections though — there are many people out there, and some of them very sharp, who have devoted much more of their time and writing to these questions.
The Middlesex closure was a further indication of the brazen mediocrity and cavalier anti-intellectualism that defines much university management today. The failure of the international campaign against the closure (which made it all the way to BBC World…) signalled that — in the absence of concerted action at a local and national level (sadly lacking in this case) — questions of intellectual worth and “the idea of the university” are entirely powerless in most cases to interfere with instrumental managerial rationality, all the more so as the government rolls out “reforms” aimed at formatting the whole sector in terms of (brutally indebted) student-customers and service-providers (lecturers and staff) under enduring threat of precarity or redundancy.
In terms of a spur to thinking, I suppose it’s made me conscious of the enormous gap between speculative discussions of political subjectivity and the like, on the one hand, and the maddening passivity and disorganisation of comparatively privileged people, on the other. For all of the inspiring dimensions of the student response and some of the union organising against austerity, it remains dangerously insufficient at present to counter the ongoing degradation of what we are instructed to call “the student experience.” Divide et impera — by audit culture, competition, job threats, etc. — is still a very effective inhibitor against action. The glum note here is also an effect of the rolling out of the new debt regime, the repression of student protests and the ebb in resistance, but it’s perfectly possible that we’ll see a new, and different, “uptick.” I think that the student strikes in Quebec (and the ongoing mobilisations in Chile, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere) hold quite a few lessons in this regard.
There seem to be two key fronts in UK higher education politics. The first, reflected mostly in the student protests, is the defense of higher education as a public good. The second, reflected mainly in faculty politics, is the resistance to what Mark Fisher has called the “market Stalinism” of university bureaucracies (e.g. the RAE and REF). Do you see these as two different issues, or have you seen strong alliances between students and faculty (especially on the resistance to managerialism)?
This is a moment which is in many regards one of ebb and fragmentation, hopefully of a temporary sort, in the wake of the enactment of the marketizing measures that had instigated the initial protests, so it is difficult to speak of “strong alliances” or indeed “fronts,” which is not to say that there haven’t been hopeful developments over the past couple of years, or moments of oppositional convergence worth prolonging (instances of serious faculty support for occupations, or solidarity occupations by students in conjunction with faculty strikes). At long last, my union (the University and Colleges Union) has begun to take steps against the managerial and marketing instruments — like the REF or, more significantly in my view, the National Student Survey — which, in these times of imposed austerity, are being used as disciplinary devices against staff, and as sops to students who are being enjoined to fully assume their status as (dissatisfied) customers.
To the extent that these “market-Stalinist” practices, to employ Fisher’s wry formulation, serve to erode residual conceptions of the public or the common, to mould and frame the student-faculty relation in commoditised terms, and, above all, to engineer a further exclusionary, competitive stratification of the sector, these are indeed two closely related dimension of the mutations in UK academia. But it is crucial not to underestimate the extent to which they are mechanisms which entangle and integrate the very people who may oppose them. A student in thousands of pounds of debt is all too likely to engage with their lecturers as service-providers, in the absence of countervailing tendencies. A lecturer may object to the REF in principle but then realise that continued receipt of a wage, or a certain status in their department or profession, depends on their previous positive scores in these and other such audits. So we continue to measure ourselves for their cuts until (and some gestures of the union, like the proposed boycott of the NSS go in this direction) we can establish collective platforms of action. The strength of these mechanisms lies not just in the alluring simulacra of choice and individual achievement, but in the fact that once in place, it takes formidable energy to reform or abolish them.
This spring you were in the US giving some talks. Based on your conversations, do you see any key differences and overlaps between the politics of higher education in the US and the UK? For example, students in both countries have used the strategy of occupation, but are there interesting differences in strategy that you have noticed?
In both, and across other societies, too, the universities are caught up in a broader impasse — which is attaining quantitatively staggering proportions, with student debt in the US around $1 trillion — affecting the reproduction of social relations under conditions of continued capital accumulation. The asset-stripping, marketisation and financialisation of health and education, and of public services more broadly, are a clear and present marker of this.
So, though more “advanced” and differently configured (culturally and economically) than England (the Scottish situation is quite different), the experience of “generation debt”features considerable similarities. England may have a residual attachment to universities as a public good, but this shouldn’t lead to the misconception that English universities are public while the ones in the US are private: English universities are charities of different kinds, not state institutions as in much of Europe, and some of the most intense struggles in the US, as in California, have been in a system of state education.
That said, there are enough critical convergences in England, the US and beyond (Chile, Canada, etc.), as to make this quite a singular moment in terms of student politics at a world scale — one that is much more intensely tied to the material conditions of social reproduction than previous moments, where the analogies in objects and forms of struggle are based on responding to remarkably homogenous strategies by many ruling classes across the globe. This might make it possible to think of the relation between objective predicaments and strategies in a different mode from the romanticism that has often been attached to student movements (or, vice versa, without their dismissal as merely “cultural” or “psychological” in kind).
Warwick University has produced a new generation of theorists (yourself, Nina Power, Mark Fisher) who have been able to reach a broad audience, whether through blogging, public speaking, or writing in a variety of media outlets. What was it about this particular philosophy department that shaped the kinds of thinkers who came out of it?
I would be quite wary of generalising to some kind of “Warwick moment” or “Warwick generation.” While I can’t gauge its shaping influence — the work that I did there as a doctoral student, which ended up as my first book, is pretty distant from my current preoccupations — I think what proved a real stimulus was the presence of a community of graduate students sharing a passion for theoretical work and a polemical dissatisfaction with the nostrums of “Continental Philosophy,” often under the guise of a quite speculative reference to philosophical materialism. What I now find very distant in that scene — the neglect or even disdain for history, political economy, social science (despite or because of an attachment to Deleuze and Guattari’s sui generis endorsement of Marx) — was I suppose also a precondition of what made it intellectually exciting and challenging: a kind of collective isolation, which for instance made possible interminable reading groups, which sometimes would degenerate into shouting matches about Spinoza’s infinite modes, or what have you. The experience of producing the journal Pli was very important too, as an autonomous space in which to try to shape the direction in which we thought the discipline should go (it was in the context of Pli that I started translating Badiou).
On the topic of Warwick, I’ve been told by a graduate to ask about Nick Land. Where does he fit into this picture?
He’d left by the time I arrived, so despite having been privy to numerous tales of his time there — humorous, horrified, hagiographic — I can’t really say, except to note that I suppose for a number of people who went on to do work with little connection to his own, he signalled some kind of break-out from the pieties of Anglophone “Continental Philosophy,” and the idea that theory could be a domain of experimentation rather than repetition. From my peripheral acquaintance with his writings they seem to share in the pitfalls of a kind of enthusiastic anti-humanism, which calls for the obliteration of the phenomenological subject, but nevertheless wants to be there to enjoy it. The rhetoric of intensity is in the end rather stultifying, and it also seems to rely on the dubious postulate that one could experience the deterritorialising force of capital, and that, to again pastiche Heidegger, the essence of capitalism is not capitalist. Alas, stripping Capitalism and Schizophrenia of its residual (and admittedly inconsistent) humanism — which seems to me to have been one of Land’s hobbyhorses — risks ending up with a kind of poetry of creative destruction, and with the attendant discovery that capital is in the final analysis profoundly, if destructively, prosaic. (Incidentally, there’s a droll vantage on Land’s time at Warwick in an old article by the music critic Simon Reynolds on the Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit..
It may not be a majority of people in humanities departments, but in general it seems like British academics are more receptive today to French theorists like Alain Badiou, Henri Lefebvre, or even Jacques Derrida. Am I right in having this impression? And if so, what do you think has brought about this change?
The reception of French philosophers and theorists in the British academy has a long history, some of it entangled with the much more substantial academic — and to some extent para-academic — fate of that peculiar beast which is “French Theory” in the US (on which one can usefully consult François Cusset’s eponymous volume. It is a tale which, however marginal, is rich in conflicts and ambiguities, from the enduring effects of an empiricist or analytical suspicion for the literary and rhetorical character of speculative efforts from across the channel, to the way in which Marxism and a French “post-structuralism” were pitted against one another in the humanities and social sciences — without forgetting the ways in which Edmund Burke’s protestations against revolutionary Parisian abstractions continue to resonate with a certain strain of British anti-intellectualism.
Conversely, one could explore the often staggering neglect of much Anglo-American social theory and history in France, where the likes of Harvey and Jameson are only being translated now. A number of episodes and “affairs” punctuate this fraught relation — take EP Thompson’s polemic against Althusser in The Poverty of Theory (with its repercussions on the theoretical rifts in the British left), or the polemic around Derrida’s honorary degree at Cambridge University. While the work of some British-based writers, academic publishing (journals and series dedicated to Deleuze, Baudrillard, etc., in a weird kind of cottage industry.), or art-world discussions may give one the impression that French philosophy has a wide reception, I think this would need to be seriously qualified, since a vast swathe of established philosophy and the social science departments and outlets in Britain are still pretty hostile (or indifferent) to this kind of work.
In a phenomenon that partly replicates the US, it is also true that the reception is often in disciplinarily “eccentric” venues – while a PhD on Wittgenstein or Davidson can probably be undertaken in most UK philosophy departments, less than a handful would take on one on Badiou or Derrida. But I think it is also time to take one’s distance from such shaky shorthand constructions as “French theory” or “French thought”: the long wave of la pensée 68 is drawing to a close, and though some of it remains a resource and an inspiration, I think we can also move beyond the repetitious attachment to debates and formulations whose moment passed some years back (this can also allow us partially to disaggregate the reception of someone like Lefebvre, linked to the fortunate crystallisation of Marxist geography in areas of Anglophone academia, to the vicissitudes of ‘Continental Philosophy’, or the more political impulses behind Badiou’s recent fame).