Uneasy Alliances, Alliances of Unease: a Conversation

Conversation

Uneasy Alliances, Alliances of Unease: a Conversation

How does thought or lived experience translate into action? The participants of the Study Circle Uneasy Alliances here engage in a conversation on the necessity and challenges of forging new forms of alliance today that can foster solidarity across different social scales. They both explore alliances of unease that are motivated by shared experiences of living under neoliberalism as well as the alliances that become uneasy by bringing together groups with different interests and backgrounds including technology, environment, and non-Western perspectives. This conversation is the outcome of a collective writing and editing process that took its cue from a physical meeting at the Berlin-based space Spektrum in November 2018 and that has since continued through an online textpad. The results are suggestive fragments to be further explored in the individual contributions and live activities at the transmediale festival.

Patricia Reed

There is a tricky question of scale to consider. Tricky because on the one hand it seems clear that we need to construct alliances at scales that are proportionate with the problems, crises, and structural injustices governing cohabitation today—alliances that will definitively be uneasy ones in the sense that they cannot be strictly predicated on relations of self-similarity or proximity. Yet on the other hand, how can we imagine constructing such scalar alliances that do not cancel, flatten, or homogenize differences at a local level, since it’s at a local scale where the impacts of (unilateral) global governance are acutely and deeply unevenly felt? The question of scale with regards to uneasy alliances entails  the importance of abstraction. This suggestion is not to undermine the concrete and experiential realm but simply to note that we require abstraction in order to better understand the systemic interconnections in operation today that co-produce our reality if we are to aim for their transformation. As the infamous euphemism goes: we cannot experience the climate, merely its localized residues as weather, so, too, we cannot experience a derivative or the “economy”, just the effects of finance logic in residual form as lived precarity or poverty in many cases. The point is that to intervene otherwise in such systemic processes, it seems necessary to better understand these abstractions, their dynamics and modes of causation that cannot be sensed in their system dimension. I think it’s here we need to think uneasy alliances at a meso-level as well, as that force, or glue bridging the micro (immediate) to the macro (systemic), in order to think the abstract to concrete (and vice-versa) relationship, rather than emphasizing one over the other.

Carolina García Cataño

We can address the problem of scaling by thinking how to “de-scale.” Current societies are centralized, the size of cities is  increasing, the centralization of resources through the management by corporations and information/media monopolies leads to the question of how there can be a “de-scalation” through decentralization so that alliances can be built in an easier way, not necessarily by proximity or similarity. “Technopolitics” describes a new paradigm, we have a working decentralized paradigm like the Internet where to learn from, FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) as a decentralized community bringing innovation and creating technological solutions, p2p as communication and exchange network. A transfer from virtual to real world can take place by thinking of a decentralized network of city-states. Reducing the size of the problems, we are able to reduce complexity and find specific solutions that experiment and exchange, and still retain the richness of the whole, if it is thought as a part of a network and not isolated. The network deconstructs the idea of proximity as the only one to create alliances, nowadays societies are interconnected and alliances do not rely on distance but on commons goals or ways of doing, empathy, or feeling of care.

Patricia Reed

One crucial impediment for the construction of uneasy alliances at work today is a very concrete, experiential one. This is addressed by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in her discussion of the problem of homophily baked into network design that governs online content delivery and social network behavior. Homophily is basically the sociological claim that humans can only love the same (i.e. the assumption that “birds of a feather flock together”, as Chun states), and when that presumption is reinforced through technological (reproductive) means, it creates online experiences where we are only exposed to worlds and “others” in our own likeness. Homophilic network design pre-emptively shields us from those unlike us, as if those other worlds, people and ideas—however despicable—do not exist, forming online versions of gated communities. So we’ve got some serious popular technological barriers here, too, in that every day we are interacting with (and training) powerful systems that are precisely designed to minimize the probability of encountering the “uneasy.” Going out on a bit of a limb here but in our cultural setting predicated on the historical creation and imperative of the “individual” as such, these systems make sense in that they mechanically nourish representations of our individuality back to us in a feedback loop, so perhaps one fundamental barrier towards the construction of uneasy alliances demands the creation of “uneasy” modes of self-understanding, ones untethered to individualism.

Jennifer Bennett

Maybe this can be related to the feeling of a general unease that grows stronger the more we learn about the impacts of our modes of production on climate and social justice. A feeling in your belly that you constantly have to suppress to be able to take part in urban consumer society. I think it’s important we get out of our theoretical comfort zones and get into real world action, especially considering climate. I mean such things as “don’t move”: all the flying around must come to an end, like “make your neighbors understand it, too” and push the demand for ecological and affordable transport. “Get your bodies on the streets to support groups in direct demands,” support groups in court, too, and help prevent evictions etc. As for now, people who are doing this are not very numerous and I’d be curious to see what happens if that changed. I think by now, we all know that “fame is lame” and we want to connect and overcome hierarchies. Plus, what to do about language? As I feel very restricted by having to think it all in English. Generally I’d appreciate if we’d use terms that everybody understands or briefly explain unknown terms. I like it in e.g. anarchist circles that a language is chosen that does not open up any hierarchies, in the sense of being initiated into a language or being excluded from it.

Ewa Majewska

Tensions, contradictions, and solidarities are what interest me most in the process of (cultural) production. I believe we can practice  Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledges”—so that we can turn particular experiences into actual knowledge. Culture, even while having fun (!!), produces knowledge and we can draw some practical consequences from it. Further topics and issues that we touched upon in our first discussion are: precarity of activism, alliances made uneasy by lack of archives, rehearsing as methodology, how to intertwine our practices without homogenizing them, demonstrating how different strategies can challenge neoliberal principles (a common thread through everyone’s work), how the hybrid profile of the group can lead to a hybrid format of the public presentation. For me, all of this relates to the new development towards thinking institutions of the common (e.g. the museum in Łódź and theaters in Warsaw). They don't pretend to be activist … but it's a different mode, more solidarity than support (bell hooks), potential topic: what could we recommend for the institution.

Marta Dauliūtė & Viktorija Šiaulytė

What interests us, is our own uneasy alliance with the so-called “neoliberal” narrative. We have been practically dealing with the questions of how to discuss this alliance with the people who are in alliance with the neoliberal logic—entrepreneurs during our documentary process. The core of our work is to engage with a selection of entrepreneurs, whose services, products, or networks that they establish and scale, “train” and educate a new kind of subject, the “entrepreneurial” subject. We have met and filmed community managers of startup incubators, venture capitalists, municipality workers who promote innovation, and governmental support for entrepreneurship as well as organizers of startup awards, monthly networking events,  and pitch sessions. They are addressing us with new, innovative tools of their ventures to be even more efficient, flexible, and communicative. These companies try to reinforce entrepreneurship itself as main mode of operation in the contemporary and a future society. As they accelerate their visions and proposals to evermore domains—education, politics, and governance, among others—we wanted to have a dialog about the actual meaning and repercussions of their visions.

In the documentary we unfold our own process of articulating critical self-reflections and an analysis of increasingly  demanding self-management and self-actualization imperatives that we recognize in our own lives in parallel with our attempt to establish a conversation with our subjects of the film through interviews, ongoing discussions, group workshops, and an observation of the entrepreneurial scene. The driving force to start this project three years ago was our desire to seek dialog with people that are empowered as well as gaining financial value from neoliberal conditions. Since then, it has been our attempt to take the discussion out of the contemporary art or film field and bring it to an environment where we think it should also take  place. However, the problematics of a possibility of dialog and discussion in the tradition of theories of deliberative democratic, and the antagonistic discussion by Jürgen Habermas and Chantal Mouffe respectively, proved much harder in the realities we have experienced. The main tension in the project is the (im)possibility to conduct a dialog with such a different social world—to which we would like to have access, but whose political attitude we strongly contradict.  What does it take to produce knowledge together across seemingly irreconcilable political positions?

Ewa Majewska

Uneasy alliances mean dialectics, as it was first introduced by Immanuel Kant who said that humans practice this “asocial sociability”—we pursue our particular aims and do not like company, to put it mildly. And yet we need society to achieve our purposes—and thus we agree to form alliances, which are not comfortable or wanted. Kant’s paradigm was rationalism. In his view, affects were merely “pathologies of the soul,” so therefore even if happiness was needed to pursue moral goals, it was not a necessary condition for it (although if you read the Second Critique, you will see how many doubts Kant had about the role of happiness). The term “uneasy alliance”  references the fundamental contradiction of the social. It stresses the individual experience and feeling (of unease) as well as the experience and feeling of the social (of allying). Thus it does not only place  the individual in the social: it reveals the social affects and the individual as structure. I believe that this complexity is crucial here and I somehow distrust Judith Butler when she suggests that affect, and hence also resistance, can only be individual. They can also be social.

So we have a sort of a clash between the individual logic of Butler's resistance and the social logic of Raymond Williams with his influential concept of “Structures of Feeling” as another reference point for this circle and the 2019 edition of transmediale.

Jennifer Bennett

Could you elaborate a little more on that?

Ewa Majewska

We have two strong philosophical traditions of political thought—Butler's liberal core versus William’s Marxism. And what we want is of course not to focus on these technical distinctions but to do an interesting project. Yet these distinctions can make our effort to discuss the uneasy alliances equally  boring and exciting because the alliance of liberalism and Marxism is par excellence and by definition uneasy. :)

In this alliance the desire to limit affect, resistance, and experience to the individual comes to an end. We can possibly solve certain fundamental problems of both perspectives, if we make a small effort. It also is an alliance in which we learn to speak a new language—to be specific a language, in which the binary code is replaced with viruses, hybrids, and queerness.

Robin Vanbesien

In my book Solidarity Poiesis (which is the result of my learning process with the popular assemblies in Athens) I talk about “solidarity from the vantage point of an intolerable present.” I also talk about the elementary role of personal contact/encounter/confrontation in solidarity processes. At the heart of true equality, status is not worked out in advance or outside relation. Lending oneself to “raw” social exposure—beyond merely acting a role—usually leads to a breach of protocol, to a rupture of established, preconceived, or imagined distinctions. This is why the Greek expression for “solidarity”, αλληλεγγύη (allilengýi), which means “close [to] each other”, is so adequate. Thus, uneasy alliances make up every solidarity process. But they are foremost uneasy alliances of lived experiences, not so much of individuals/actors. So I agree with Ewa that it’s a bit more complicated than Butler’s proposal, and that William’s focus on the nature of our lived experiences as emergent, particular, and contingent, while at the same time transindividual, is much more useful. Because it points out why “uneasy alliances that stands against injustice” (Butler) could be conceived as ineliminably tragic, resulting in the absence of any form of reconciliation. Is this a problem? No. This is the nature of our vulnerabilities.

Wojciech Kosma

I'm writing after taking part in the study day and after having followed the online conversations for a few weeks now which I feel gives me a more interesting perspective than just engaging with the titular notions abstractly. I like to consider the specific alliance, uneasy or else, that a study circle can engage with or even embody, in other words: what’s possible with this given group of people. I'm wondering about the ebb and flow of the group dynamics, how inspiring a single gesture, a specific manifestation of commitment or selfless work can be—and, on the other hand, how frustrating or demotivating the lack of reaction or sense of development of those gestures is. The overlap between different practices, sensitivities, or even pragmatic dimensions of involvement seems to be shifting and fleeting, it’s impossible to rely on it. The attitude towards production modes seems pivotal: how much production is too much? How much too little? The alliance suggests a hard, tangible, even if temporary, structure, which perhaps doesn't describe what we’re dealing with. An alliance is a gazebo, it’s overground while we're possibly growing underground rhizomes.

Carolina García Cataño

The crucial thing is to build autonomy. This references autonomous structures and infrastructures, to live together and also to have a group practice. Partially uneasiness is linked to life unsustainability, therefore the role of economy is important, implies building resistance by developing new economical frameworks based on mutual and shared economy, social, and solidarity economy that helps living and going through uncertain and precarious processes. I am not into theoretical approaches since they have been detached from practice instead of supporting ongoing processes. I like the idea of garage philosophy, to bring thought as a daily practice to reflect upon daily situations. I also think that theory is framed by the academic world but thoughts cannot be restricted to academy. Thought is bound to human beings and can be achieved in different ways.

Patricia Reed

An extrapolation from the scale question is a temporal one. Alliances are necessary for immediate, urgent situations—situations that are present in time and space now, and the people and ecosystems suffering from those acute situations. Yet there is also a need for uneasy alliances with temporal orders that are both longer and shorter than those measurable on human terms, that ultimately concern liveability on the earth for generations of species, and not just our own. How can such uneasy alliances be forged to bring these divergent temporal orders into relation?

Carolina García Cataño

In the squares we dissolved the idea of strong identities. New “soft” and “organic” identities were created, based on active listening and questioning the “truths” coming from ideologies. In countries like Germany, the identities associated with ideologies are still very strong in the left scene. We are seeing how the #GiletsJaunes or #YellowVests are creating a big uneasiness in the French society where people are debating if it’s an extreme left or an extreme right movement. What we are seeing in this process is that those identities, left and right, don't represent the concern of citizens regarding their living conditions, their disillusionment on politicians, the rejection of the 1% stealing the wealth, and that there is a demand for a people’s democracy. On the other side, the uneasy relationship between support and solidarity among equals becomes evident in a migrant environment. Support dominates over solidarity, equality between people is left aside. The charity model is winning with solidarity, that is power relations taking form, which prevents from sharing and genuinely doing things together. We need new references and leave Western-Centrism behind, question theory and practices narrated by neoliberal societies, accept the uneasiness of playing on other grounds with other languages, other believes and other ways of doing. Senegal is a role model in Africa, Y’en a Marre brings in open, alternative ways of making politics—it’s inspiring and offers alternative references.

Jennifer Bennett

For my book Save I have interviewed individuals belonging to indigenous communities which oppose the state and forms of citizenship imposed on them, to which they resist. Here in Berlin I try to connect artists who are reflecting on gentrification and other processes in which they are sometimes (involuntarily) participating. I am also interested in self-managed infrastructures built in the 1970s which are currently threatened and I try to support their struggle as well as to bring artists to support these spaces. Artists are often very limited to their own practice, and I don’t see them jumping in organizations which fight for spaces and communities. I also find it interesting to look at the working conditions today. The individualist, competitive practice is inscribed in our experience. So I would like to ask for the kind of alliances which you have experienced or worked in? Is alliance  the opposite of fragmentation? Do we want to inspire action? How do non-competitive relations look like? I am also inspired by the writer Andreas Weber, who just published a book called Indigenialität, in which his focus lays on abundance and how to nourish it through the practice of giving, which he relates to the indigenous cosmovision that our culture has replaced with the idea of exchange.

Marta Dauliūtė & Viktorija Šiaulytė

In The New Way of the World philosopher Pierre Dardot and sociologist Christian Laval offer a very accurate articulation of the neoliberal subject or the entrepreneurial subject as an imperative we could very well recognize in our own lives. They describe neoliberalism as a mode of conduct that demands a certain subjectivity—the desire of limitless production has to come from within which turns self-realization into an internalized control power. Finding this precise articulation by Dardot and Laval gave us a certain comfort in constant clash between this imperative and the failure to respond to the demand to be unconditionally entrepreneurial. We believe many freelance cultural workers like us find themselves continuously on the verge of personal bankruptcy, a state that one has to face again and again. With the impossibility to make a firm distinction between one’s own failure to deliver and the failure of the economic rationality we live in, one never abandons the cruel optimism to perform even harder in order to escape the precarious living conditions once and for all. Perhaps the only way to stop this cruelly optimistic performance is a collective endeavour. On the other hand, how come it is also so easy to become a collective that intensifies such performance? How can we resist it?

Patricia Reed

What makes some alliances “easy” and what qualifies others as “uneasy”? By “easy” do we mean relations of conceptual proximity and likeness (like homophily), where shared interests constitute a bonding relation? By “uneasy” do we mean the utterly different and alien, and, if so, at what point does a limit on alliance building get established, so as not to become an utterly trivial amalgam that absorbs absolutely everything, thereby losing political positioning?

Carolina García Cataño

Disappointment as well as unease is part of our current social framework, you have to deal with it from a learning perspective, it opens the space for other possibilities. Also political work brings inspiration from corners where you didn't expect them, from people not call many times political and there should be a look to existing experiences of social organization from a Non-Western perspective.
Learning by doing and finding solutions together is a way of building up unexpected alliances, putting ideas together and into practice, creating a collective brain, a brain of the commons. In the aim of creating other political frameworks and narratives, I like the one that is opened through cooking and food, where tastes are a part of identity, resistance, and memory, and as a cultural ritual is key in the construction of unions and alliances. The kitchen is a transversal space which is good for exchange and conversations created by women with a political impact, as well as social and economical, having as background the question of care and away from the rigid forms of meetings. Food leads us to questions regarding food sovereignty, GMO, or climate change. In a world falling apart, storytelling is important; to reach people by opening up other imaginaries and languages is key to bring awareness. A good example of how this is being carried out is the use of hip-hop in Senegal, since it is spreading a critical message, and at the same time showing an alternative path in countries still colonized by Europe, encouraging youth to rise up and take the future in their hands by using urban culture.

Jennifer Bennett

Music as a form of bringing people together on a sensual level seems to me a valuable practice that was also used in communities in Detroit by the RAIZ Up movement to raise awareness for evictions. The collective believes hip-hop has the potential to help build a better community through artistic creation, popular education, and collective action.

Robin Vanbesien

The nature of the shared perspective of the alliance is, in my opinion, interestingly exemplified in the last scene of Apichatpong’s Hotel Mekong (2012) in which two male characters look out at the river: “the frame initially strikes us as the unmediated conduit for what the men are seeing. But they never reappear. So while we feel at times vitally connected to this diegetic couple's watching, there are other periods when we feel that our meandering attention has abandoned their point-of-view for ours alone. The shot's variegated temporality confronts the viewer with a tension between individual and collective registers of looking”1 Eventually, the collective look, while necessary, remains temporary and fragile, while the individual look is essentially hesitant and becomes haunted. If we learn to understand the constitution of this reciprocal relation better, we can learn to build our muscle for it.

From the vantage point of living in an intolerable present, the inclinations, behavior patterns, and aspirations of any organism become haunted. It paves the way for an alliance of unease. I’m talking about an alliance that works toward a shared perspective at lived experiences and feelings of unease, vulnerability, contingency, catastrophe. What Marcuse called sensory “organs for the alternative” can become assembled into a transindividual “body for the alternative”. However, it’s the nature of the alliance that it is unstable, that this body remains ephemeral, situational, and conversational. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Patricia Reed

I think our notion of “alliance” needs to be grasped in the broadest way possible, in that thinking “uneasy alliances” cannot be strictly bound to relations between humans, but ought to also include uneasy alliances to concepts, world-models, geography, objects, materials, self-understanding and so on. What I’m getting at is, in an everyday sense, we navigate the world in alliance with certain conceptual models we have (pre)conceived of it. Those, in turn, become patterns or habits of thought, infusing all manner of relations and behavior; so, in order to substantially change those patterns of activity (in thought, gesture and material) we need to construct uneasy alliances to foreign concepts that grant us different perspectival frameworks from which to maneuver anew. I think the potential transformability of the world, and our relations therein, is contingent on forging uneasy alliances to otherworldly concepts, the cognition of which (to borrow from Katherine Hayles), is “expensive,” meaning it’s hugely energy consuming precisely because it breaks the (efficient) automatism of habitual thought. This, of course, is not to suggest constructing “uneasy alliances” is purely a conceptual problem, there are plenty of further questions that cascade from this, notably the translation of ideas into gesture, into doings and their subsequent articulation as technology, that are anything but straightforward. Concept creation on its own is not enough, but it strikes me as important to highlight the mutual dependencies between ideality and materiality and why this uneasy alliance building may also include the forging of relationships to other models of the world (concepts) and the consequences those new perspectives entail.

Carolina García Cataño

When we are talking about alliances, questions come up. Why do we need alliances? How to build them? When? With whom? Can an alliance be thought in advance or does it just happen when a clear goal is defined? Is an alliance a strong fix structure or a swarm? Do we need a punctual collective structures or something else? What makes alliances uneasy? Where are the borders of easiness, how permeable are we? Are we ready to have our ground moved by others?

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