Category Archives: Contract & Contagion

Part One: Foundations and the Proliferation of Contract

By Karen Gregory

Part Two, on the social logic of the derivative and the role of the digital, will be posted tomorrow.

First, I would like to say thank you to all the forum participants—Angela Mitropoulos, Robin James, Anne Boyer, Constantina Zavitsanos, Patricia Clough, Aren Aizura, and Mark Gawne. You really outdid yourself in this series of incredible posts, which taken together give a reader of Contract and Contagion much to consider and think through. Thank you for your time, your energy, and your willingness to write in public. I know that many of us, as students, researchers, scholars, writers, and readers, appreciate this willingness and are grateful to be able to learn from one another in such a format. In the same vein, many thanks to Angela for her willingness to participate in the forum and for writing Contract and Contagion. It never fails to impress me how much generosity goes into academic work. This forum was made possible by the very kind of unpaid and often overlooked labor that its writing seeks to address; yet, I hope, in coming together through this writing we are finding and creating a necessary space for thought and questioning. Each post this week had me wondering what might be possible in our own lives and as educators if we not only turned to one another actively to reject the exploitation of our generosity—and demand access to the contract and the wage—but if we also turned toward one another actively to create, as Anne suggested, something more like “leaky mega-oikos, contagious with care, ready for riot.”

I’m very aware that working collectively and “online” or digitally in no way puts us beyond the politics of measure that surveil and often determine the very shape and content of academics, yet at the same time I have been curious to find ways to work collaboratively on projects that draw our academic attention to the notion that “we are how we live.” In a time when the university feels like failure all around, forums like this are an attempt to connect more gently to the work many of us desire to do. Posing the question to faculty, I’ve asked what “takes care of you” in this moment of academic precarity/expansion, and each of the forum posts this week has raised for me the question of how we might imagine our labor, not to seek new foundations but rather to move toward the infrapolitical, or “promiscuous infrastructures,” as Contract and Contagion (as well as Harney and Moten ) points us toward. “Infrastructure,” writes Mitropoulos, “is neither the skilled virtuosity of the artisan, nor the regal damask, nor the Jacquard loom that replaced, reproduced and democratized them, but the weave” (118). Yet, in considering the weave, I am curious about how the digital and the algorithmic are being woven into life itself. Given that capital, as Nigel Thrift has written, wants to “run at the rate of life” and is continually seeking out what he’s a called an “expressive infrastructure,” I wonder if we can rely on the “swerve” of contingency to remain uncaptured.[1] Still, what I take from Contract and Contagion is a deeply valuable reconfiguration of thought toward limits, ratios, and the power of excess to refuse the imposed futurity of foundation. Contract and Contagion is a wonderful, complex exploration of Western capital’s fight to control uncertainty—but it is also a beautiful reminder that nothing is ever completely within its control.

Contingency Is the New Normal

Many of us work in a social institution that seems to refuse the future: relying on short-term, precarious work arrangements; high turnover among both faculty and administrators; academic projects built to last merely a semester; and institutional investment seemingly in anything other than students and teachers. Yet at the same time, the University is an institution pressured to act as a reparative agent in the wake of economic “reskilling.” The tension between contingency and reparation is palatable, yet in many fantasies of the supposedly flexible, digital university to come (as well as the nostalgic fantasies of the meritocratic, pluralistic university) the university is imagined as a site of reinscribing lines of contract and mobility (or the transference of wealth). Much talk of the university is entangled in a sense that previously education served as a transformative link between the household or private family and the market (although we should certainly question the historical reality of that conceptualization, as Roderick Ferguson does in The Reorder of Things) or that it operated as a hedge against insecurity. This notion of a transformative link no longer exists, and we continually hear that this is because of a “broken social contract” between government, employers, and workers.

Superficially, it seems the University is in the throes of its own soul-searching for its social function, but while it wrestles with that, most of us have become downright exhausted by the question of which disciplines are dead, which are zombies or vampires, and which are the new promising babies of entrepreneurialism. Yet when looking through a lens of contractualism we can see that the University, far from being lost, operates within and through a proliferation of contracts—namely contracts of debt.[2] A jobs crisis has only exacerbated, for some, the need to go into debt for a degree and to become indebted to the University’s sociality. As Contract and Contagion shows us, crisis is always good for the project of recalibrating the “good” and “proper” foundation. As Mitropoulos writes: “The intimate performativity of contact and genealogical lines of oikonomia were, then, elaborated in the encounters with plagues” (48). This is why some calls for “access” to education are really attempts to inveigle more attentive (or hapless) eyes into an indebted arrangement.

If the very sociality of contract relations are predicated on a boundary-marking performance of exclusion, which marks those who can speak and be recognized and those who may not, then we might, as Anne and others are suggesting, embrace a radical refusal of contract through new alignments of care. This might entail a refusal of the University altogether. As Constantina writes, “fuck an equal brother and the estate.” When I read that, I thought of something someone said my first week of college: “Here, for the next four years, men and women will be the most equal they will ever be.” This was a tremendous lie, of course, but it did go a long way toward adhering to what Mitropoulos might call a “moral” affectivity of the project of liberal education—a state of equality can only be guaranteed by such an investment.

The University as it is currently organized is basically a glue trap left out overnight, tantalizing with the very promise of contract’s articulation. Signing on all the dotted lines (I agree to attend, to pay attention and dollars and “sense” to keep true to the project of articulation this signing entitles me to) is akin to getting caught in the very desire to speak or be recognized as an equal. This is no small desire. Furthermore, sociologically, the notion of college as education continues to position itself as the single most important mediator of economic “security.” The University is in the insurance business, even though it has never had to account for any of its policies. In spite of talk of broken social contracts, thinking through the University as an extension of oikos is to see that the contract is not broken, as much as it is dispersed—or made derivative. The University has refoundationalized itself by bundling together the morality of contract with risk, debt, and speculation. What seems like contingency and chaos from one perspective is a lucrative ground from which to resituate the conservative law of the household, which states that contract must be valorized and the transmission of wealth made to feel necessary for life itself, while at the same time requiring the naturalization of indebtedness to the system. This is why we see, on the one hand, the expansion of higher education as a supposedly reparative agent while simultaneously we can have conversations about limiting the enrollment of graduate cohorts—all while the University itself  “restructures” toward a more “productive” balance of future figureheads.

[1] Nigel Thrift (2012) writes in his article “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land”: What I have particularly tried to suggest is that the underlying model of what constitutes ‘econ omy’ is changing to what might be termed a ‘natural’ model. This is not a natural economy from which money has been banished. Rather, it is a natural economy because it resembles the process of terraforming in that it drives practices of worlding that are concerned with producing environments (or rather, as I have tried to make clear, proto-environments), which do not just provide support for a way of life in the way of infrastructure, but are a way of life: infrastructure cannot be separated out since it too has become expressive. In these worlds, every fibre of being is bent to producing landscapes that confirm each and every moment as what will happen. This is an econ-omy that has gone beyond ideology or hegemony in their stricter senses in that it is pre-emptive and makes its moves before the event has completely unfolded.

[2] While I’m sure little Louis will find his “full college experience,” it’s not without some irony that Gary Becker, the grandfather of human capital theory, has to urge his grandson to see the value in an education.

Karen Gregory is a Lecturer at City College’s Center for Worker Education and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Politics, Value and Labour: Three Selections on the Significance of Oikonomia

By Mark Gawne

Firstly, I want to say thanks to Karen for organizing this forum, and also to Angela and Karen for getting me involved with it. Thanks also to all contributors. I feel very privileged to have been able to participate in this, and to learn so much from everyone’s contributions. I very much appreciate it.

Unfortunately I have not had time to write anything completely new for the forum, so I have sent selections from existing pieces. The first selection Unsettling accounts & contested futures is an excerpt from a review. This excerpt is chosen to offer some basic comments on how C&C is important as a political contribution to contemporary debates concerning organisation, emphasizing the infrastructural and infra-political over the institutional, the Party and the Prince. The second selection, modified from another paper and chapter of my thesis, is a brief comment on the recurring limits of substantialist accounts of labour and value within classical and recent political economy. Most specifically, recent attempts to theorise affective labour have re-inscribed a substantialist account of labour and value as “value-affect”. The critique of this re-inscription is an important part of my work elsewhere, and my development of the critique has been informed by Angela’s work in C&C as well as her work elsewhere. The final selection is notes from a talk I gave in December 2012, looking at ideas of affective composition and disaffection.

1. Unsettling Accounts & Contested Futures

The title of Angela Mitropoulos’ Contract and Contagion (C&C) points the reader immediately to two terrains of tension and contestation: first, the interplay between contract and contagion, and second, the shifting conceptual prisms of biopolitics and oikonomia. Mitropoulos argues throughout C&C that the particular chemistry of contract and contagion, the taking of form of the valorization of contingency, is the pivotal problematic of capitalist re-/production, and thus futurity. The contract is that form and rule which traces a past into the present and projects a future as a specifically capitalist form of life, in that ‘the interaction between contracts and contagions models the recomposition of an open field into the closed system of capitalism’ (168). However, the apparent neat alignment of the contractual, projected way of life with the theoretical framework of biopolitics is ultimately insufficient to the task of grasping the real novelty of what Mitropoulos calls neocontractualism – the infinite contractualism of post-Fordism. The prism of oikonomia sharpens the critique of re-/production as a historically specific capitalist form, and of the present arrangement of such as an infinite contractualism. Further, the critique of oikonomia gives critical expression to the complex weaving of genealogy, the ‘household’, work and the extraction of surplus labour and value. It is ultimately in this latter theoretical innovation that Mitropoulos succeeds in articulating with precision what often passes unproblematically as the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism, in identifying the dimensions of the asymmetries in the relationship between labour and capital, as well as in destabilizing many inherited assumptions of left political thought. This is, then, an unsettling of the received accounts of political economy, subjectivity and activity, and a relocating of the clinamen as that political force and moment which might project a different future. In a time when questions of political representation and organisation as Party recirculate heavy with nostalgia, foreshortening not only left critique but also the political horizons of contemporary anti-capitalism, Mitropoulos’s arguments for a radically queer Marxian and Lucretian materialism that resists the pull for the ‘princely seizure of power’ and the ‘restoration of foundations’, is both timely and important.

Most crucially, it is in Mitropoulos’ insistence on the critique of the restoration of foundations, and the refusal of the normative genealogical lines through which property and right pass, that sets C&C apart. This is not merely an academic question, but one which political movements must confront. Against the return to foundations left and right, against the re-inscription of normative positions as the basis for politics, C&C opens a debate for politics to pursue a ‘genealogy otherwise’ and a ‘non-genealogical approach to life’. This is a serious question, and a very difficult challenge. Indeed, what a response to this question might look like in practice is hard to formulate.

Nonetheless, Mitropoulos’ response to this question, whilst not made exactly explicit, or at least not at length in the pages of C&C, remains I think consistent with the kind of practical, Lucretian materialism developed throughout the book. The ‘annotation’ titled ‘Infrastructure, Infra-political’ ultimately sets the terms for confronting the problem of politics conceived as genealogy otherwise. Mitropoulos’ argument for infrastructure and the infra-political concerns the question of politics as one that allows for activity to occur, for different, open attachments and affinities to form, and others to fall away. Infrastructure and the infra-political become, for Mitropoulos, the necessary terms for the refusal of the politics of mediation and representation.

This is an important contribution to the contemporary debate on political organization and form. C&C’s insistence on infrastructure and the infra-political counters the calls for the institutionalization of movements (for example Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth), for the reformation of the Party and the necessary hammering down of the line that comes with it (for example Jodi Dean, Communist Horizon, or ‘Party in the USA’), for the re-occupation of formal political institutions, and for the re-glorification of the Prince as he who makes the political decision to affect change in consciousness (for example Mark Fisher’s comments in Give me shelter, Frieze Magazine). Whilst the latter arguments all insist, in one way or another, on the delimiting of politics, space and form in time (and arguably the rearrangement of both hierarchical and idealist foundations of subjectivity, for eg see the footnote on Negri on page 10), the infrastructural and infra-political insists instead on movement and relation, the establishment of the conditions that allow for such, and the refusal of representation. It is not, then, about ‘the’ organization and its political line that the infrastructural is concerned with, but rather the amplification of politics as lived reality. The problematic is that of whether ‘infrastructure can be a field of experimentation and variation rather than repetition of the self-same’. In a pithy formulation, Mitropoulos puts it as follows: ‘the infra-political…revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise’ (117). In the essay ‘Autonomy, Recognition, Movement’ published in 2006, discussing the autonomy of migration and movement, Mitropoulos pointed out that ‘mediation always risks positioning itself as an instance of capture’. The discussion here in C&C, is a deeper explication of what it will take to refuse such a politics of mediation. In this, politics is expressed as a series and variability of attachments and detachments, affections and disaffections, visibility and invisibility. The ‘royal expertise’ of the Prince and the Party is rejected, and instead emerges a politics that emphasizes the movements and swerves of bodies as that which animates political composition. As Mitropoulos points out, it is by definition impossible to pin down and predict with exactitude the clinamen, but the emphasis on the infrastructural and the in-between space of the infra-political is based firmly in the perspective that it is in the unpredictable swerve that political contestation and the possibility of new worlds arise.

2. The recurring limits of substantialist accounts of labour and value

One of the most powerful challenges I have taken from C&C is the rethinking of labour and the law of value as the law of the household. The framing of this problem in terms of contract allows the argument in C&C to move beyond a series of blockages in classical, as well as traditional Marxist, political economy, and to analyse in what ways the contractual is always in play when we speak of surplus value and labour. I agree with Angela that this is a revisiting of Marx’s theory of value and of labour, and it is without doubt a necessary break with so much of “Marxism’s” conception of labour in substantialist terms (and the politics that flow from that conception). That said, I also think that there is a consistency between Angela’s argument and the direction Marx moves (alienation, fetishism of the commodity, surplus value). Or in other words, whilst Marx did break with a substantialist account of labour and value, and whilst the political implications of which remain pertinent, C&C develops an argument concerning the micro and macro materiality of the stakes of such a break in novel ways. As one illustration of this, the history of political economy, of much traditional Marxism, and even heretical Marxisms, has shown that the critique of capital has struggled to move forward without reinscribing various foundational accounts of labour and value. The appearance of the foundation has shifted over time, but the reliance upon foundation has remained. C&C I think helps us to cut across this.

To sketch this in the briefest of ways: Since the emergence of political economy, much of the controversy and debates concerning value have turned upon the role of labour within production generally, as well as on labour in its specific forms, but nonetheless often as an ahistorical or transhistorical category. One of the earliest foundations of an emergent labour theory of value is that the value of a commodity is equal to the amount of labour embodied in it. This foundation is in many ways the crux of substantialist accounts of the labour theory of value, and it is a limitation on the critique of value and labour that continues today. With the emergence of, and since, classical political economy the problem of thinking and theorising value is also a problem of how one understands labour: a given understanding of the theory of value will necessarily disclose something about how labour is understood. In this way the historical development of conceptions of labour occurs alongside, or entwined with theorisations of value. For example, for the physiocrats agricultural labour was productive, for later theorists it was manufactures and industry took centre stage, whilst some contemporary theorists argue that informational, affective or immaterial labour is now the site of key productivity and the ontological anchor of any transformative politics. All of these debates have in various ways articulated labour theories of value. However, a common limitation within each variation of these labour theories of value is that each tends to reproduce a substantialist conception of value, particular to the specific form of labour that it valorizes. Of course, the shifts in foundational forms of labour arise in relation to numerous other contributing factors, for example changes in technological development, political struggle, legal architectures and so on. However, what is of interest here is that otherwise ostensibly anti-capitalist perspectives, that is those that would seek the abolition of labour and capital, have also relied upon various remakings of foundational and substantialist accounts of labour and value.

As noted briefly above, I do think Marx can be removed this lineage, in so far as he broke with a substantialist account of labour and value. Whilst Marx wrote of the substance and magnitude of value in terms of labour and time, it is clear enough that he was not talking about this in terms of homogenous, concrete units of time and that the problem of the form of value, that is the historical specificity of capital, could not be reduced to these former categories. Indeed for Marx ‘the vulgar economist has not the faintest idea that the actual everyday exchange relations can not be directly identical with the magnitudes of value’ (Letter to Kugelman). However, I won’t spend any time in this post as to why I think this is important in terms of Marx’s theory of value, as it is of secondary importance. And to be clear this is not a disagreement with Angela’s points concerning the wage contract, and the ‘logical and political’ necessity that ‘surplus labour is that which is not recognized in or by the wage contract’ (161). Nor do I disagree that Marx was writing at a time when women and children were being moved out of the factory, and as such there is much to gain from reading Marx’s analysis of the factory acts and working day against the development of, as one example, family law (as C&C does, and also for example Janet Halley, Family Law: a genealogy, 2011). In this regard I think C&C is right to point to how Marx ‘misunderstood the character of the wage contract as the organisation of right and surplus labour in its socially amplified senses’ (165). However, in this post I would simply like to quickly place C&C’s analysis of oikonomia within the frame of contemporary debates on the question of value and substance.

For the sake of simplicity I would point to two contemporary Marxist perspectives that are important and useful in confronting this question of substance and value: that associated with value-form theory, and that developing out of the perspective of operaismo. These perspectives represent two poles in the limit concerning contemporary critiques of value, labour and substance, but they are more instructive than most for that reason. I would suggest that C&C’s development of oikonomia helps us to pick up the insights from these perspectives whilst simultaneously cutting across them.

To continue with extreme brevity: The limit associated with first pole of value-form theory, is that an over-emphasis on the value-form, whilst breaking with substantialist accounts of labour, makes it extremely difficult to speak of what I would call the micro-materiality of (re)production – what C&C might call genealogical economies and the ‘meshing of gender, class, sex and race’. For one example from the perspective of value-form theory, Michael Heinrich (2012) argues that ‘the “substance of value” as a figure of speech has frequently been understood in a quasi-physical manner: the worker has expended a specific quantity of abstract labour and this quantity exists within the individual commodity and turns the isolated article into an object of value’ (44). In a similar manner to I.I Rubin, Heinrich also emphasizes that abstraction is a real event that occurs through exchange, and that moreover, the relationship between exchange, abstraction and value disrupts the substantialist account of value and labour. Heinrich argues that ‘abstract labour cannot be measured in terms of hours of labour: every hour of labour measured by a clock is an hour of a particular concrete act of labour…abstract labour, on the other hand cannot be expended at all.  Abstract labour is a relation of social validation that is constituted in exchange’ (50). Exchange and abstraction take place and mediate the relation between the individual labour and the total social labour, value is expressed in this process: ‘only with the act of exchange does value obtain an objective value form’. As a result, it is not possible to see value as a particular thing that simply exists in a commodity at the end of production.[1] Moishe Postone has made a similar point in arguing that ‘what renders them [immaterial or material commodities] commensurable is value, a historically specific form of wealth that has nothing to do with their properties, whether material or immaterial, but is the crystallized expression of a historically specific form of social mediation that, in Marx’s analysis, is constituted by a historically specific form of labor’. So, in this manner, whilst value-form theory powerfully undercuts the substantialist concept of labour as a transhistorical category and source of foundational value, and complicates the relationship between time and value, a significant limitation to this perspective lies in its inability to take up the lived temporalities and dimensions to work, whether it be waged, unwaged and so on. The theoretical plane of value and equivalence is in this respect ill equipped to deal with the punctuations (or lack thereof) of work and the stratifications of class along lines of race, gender and sex. In much the same way as exchange-value, for Marx, contains not an atom of use-value, or inasmuch as abstract labour cares not for the concrete forms of labour, value-form theory has little to say about the life, arrangements, and refusal, of work.

The second pole, that of post-operaismo, moves in a different direction. Post-operaismo rejects the substantialist account of labour and value, primarily (if ironically) because it accepts the Ricardian rendering of the theory. However, the paradoxical result of the rejection of the substantialist theory of value is its re-inscription ‘from below’ as value-affect. The post-workerists’, particularly the Negrian variant, engagement with value and labour flattens labour and value into a singular, smooth, productive and ontological substance. As Antonio Negri has put it: ‘In this paradoxical way, labor becomes affect, or better, labor finds its value in affect, if affect is defined as the “power to act” (Spinoza). The paradox can thus be reformulated in these terms: The more the theory of value loses its reference to the subject (measure was this reference as a basis of mediation and command), the more the value of labor resides in affect, that is, in living labor that is made autonomous in the capital relation, and expresses…its power of self-valorization’. From this point of departure, the ontologisation of labour qua affect is similarly, albeit for different reasons, unable to speak of the stratifications of labour. Indeed, the reconfiguration of value and labour as value-affect becomes a new foundation.

It is somewhere between and beyond the above perspectives that I think oikonomia can be an important critical lens. That is C&C presents an argument that does not reside in a substantialist account of value, that refuses to refound politics in a valorisation of the labouring subject, and which through oikonomia and contract traces the asymmetries that necessarily underscore the formal equivalence of value and exchange. Maybe I am stretching the terms too far, but I think it is also possible to take up questions of the content and form of value with these terms of oikonomia and contract. Anyway, perhaps paradoxically, despite this attention to detail in terms of surplus labour and value, or perhaps precisely because of it, C&C ultimately rejects any productivist foundation for politics. Which of course is a part of what is meant here: ‘ultimately this is a question about the abolition of labour (and capital) that is not premised on the mystification of either labour or capital.’ Whilst arguments for the abolition of labour and value (as much as I like them) can tend to be lost at such a level of abstraction that it is difficult to find where to begin with ‘politics’, the posing of the interplay between contract and contagion may help see beyond this abstraction.

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Thoughts on Measure

By Patricia Clough

The relation between contract and contagion … illustrates the history and practice of actually-existing contracts as the allocation of risk, and gives an account of contagions as the field of the valorisation of contingency. It is, in other words, the always-present circumstance of a transitional phase in which things neither had to transpire as they did and could always turn out to be otherwise than anticipated. — Angela Mitropoulos

I could only hurry through Angela Mitropoulos’s Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia and there is no doubt that a much slower reading is necessary to grasp fully the wide implications of Angela’s argument(s). A slower reading is especially needed in my case since the theoretical configurations taken up by Angela are precisely those that I have written about in the last twenty years. In my read, I was able at least to notice small differences between Angela and me at every turn in the arguments of Contract and Contagion. How all these tiny differences add up is what I cannot engage without further study of Contract and Contagion, which I look forward to doing. What I can address is what I suspect the small differences lean upon and that is Angela’s reading of political economy, the affective economy, governance, politics and the political in ways that rethink oikonomia. Putting oikonomia at the heart of her arguments, Angela resists Foucault’s take on the family or the shift from the family as model of governance, from the sovereign as a good father, who will provide, to the family as instrument in the biopolitical governing of populations.

Indeed, Angela’s suggestion that we think from biopoliltics to or through oikonomia is to question just how gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class are to be understood in the interaction between population and family at the point when household work is extended to all sorts of contractual and subcontractual work—where short term, not long term, contracts prevail and where contagion meets contract.

As I have followed Foucault in thinking that the family has become the privileged instrument for obtaining data pertaining to the life and death capacities of populations, I have suggested that the population becomes the medium of interests and aspirations, producing conflict and consensus between population and family—or between an intense familialism and what I have called “population racism.” I am aware that the shift I am focusing on is one that concerns the figure of the father/man while it is the figure of the mother/woman that Angela focuses on, but from my perspective the shift to the figure of the mother/woman in household and work also is one in which the family is abstracted to population.

My thinking also has focused on population because I have been concerned with measure in relationship to labor, but a measure of those pre-individual aspects or affects, and the accumulation of affect-itself, or life-itself, at a time when both Marxist and post-Fordist theories of labor are challenged long after the labor process and the production of value have been disconnected from mass manufacture. A focus on measure is to call into question the human centeredness of our thinking about laboring bodies and their environment—such as household, factory, school, prison. After all, Marx did assume the human organism in his discussion of value and labor and now against that assumption, we must face the labor of body parts, tissue, organs, cell lines etc. and how these are populations that are statistically produced.

In other words, I am not thinking of populations as populations of humans or only humans. I have wondered about the pre-individual and its environment (of course a slower read of Contract and Contagion might prove how I should not have focused as much as I have.) My critique of autopoeisis and the organism comes at a moment when family and household are not clearly marked, at least as I see it, and I question therefore whether contractual or subcontractual labor is the extension of household work that Angela takes it to be. Of course it is the case that this labor obliterates the boundary between private and public and all the concepts that adhere to that distinction—body and environment for one, but also quantitative and qualitative measure for another.

I have argued that the organism must be rethought or put back ‘within the wider field of forces, intensities and duration that give rise to it and which do not cease to involve a play between nonorganic and stratified life’ as Keith Ansell Pearson argued sometime ago. (1999: 154). This would introduce into autopoiesis ‘the complexity of non-linear, far-from-equilibrium conditions’, which brings the human to ‘a techno-ontological threshold of a postbiological evolution’ (Pearson, 1999: 216). Pearson’s rethinking of autopoiesis not only looks to the ongoing investment in the informatics of biology, an investment in the biomediated body’s introduction of the postbiological threshold into ‘life itself’, he also takes a look back at the evolutionary history of genetic reproduction, one that is less focused on oikonomia than Angela would have it.

This history that Pearson delivers ends in the present opening to the speculative, the recognition of novelty or the unexpected or wildly contingent as productive of value. I have suggested elsewhere that we think of biotechnologies as inhabiting matter, modulating its informationality, its dynamic toward novelty.  This is not a mere reduction to the technical but rather it is a demand that we rethink the long held distinction between matter and form, the material and the immaterial and the living and the inert. Not only is our understanding of the body transformed, but so is the technical and technologies of measure.

This leads me to some thoughts about measure in order to rethink the conceptualization of the qualitative as supplement to the reductive quantitative. Not that revaluing the quantitative is a liberating move, but rather a necessary move to grasp how measure is changing—how it is itself becoming speculative in an economically productive way and how it is itself a matter of contagion. The contagious measure is trans-formative; it has an open-ended relation to form itself. In this sense, the contagious measure has the ability to change itself. It is replication without reproduction, without fidelity, without durability. It is this generative differentiation that is repeated. It is the repetition that is the difference, the difference that counts and which is expressed numerically in code as “a continual replication of numerical difference.” The contagious seeks out code as its medium. It is through code that the contagious measure performs its mutation in and across species, as well as all technical platforms or domains.  With the current focus on digital algorithms, we might say more simply that algorithms can change the parameters without a pre-planned strategy.

Recently, Luciana Parisi has written about digital algorithmic architectures proposing that algorithimic architectures can no longer be thought as exclusively aiming to predict or calculate probabilities for an optimal solution. Rather they are real objects, spatiotemporal data structures, where calculation is “not equivalent to the linear succession of data sets,” Instead “each set of instructions is conditioned by what cannot be calculated or the incomputable” (2013). In algorithms “the incomputable discloses the holes, gaps, irregularities, and anomalies within the formal order of the sequence” and as such aims for novelty. From the perspective of algorithmic architectures, the quantities involved are not merely a reduction of qualities, sensory or physical; nor are quantities immanent to qualities. Quantities rather are conditioned by their own indeterminacies since algorithmic architectures are inseparable from incomputable data or incompressible information—that information or liveliness between zeros and ones. Here, indeterminacy is immanent to quantity so that it can produce the event, the novel.

While this turn to a cultural criticism of the abstract, the algorithmic, seems essential to understanding labor now, it also seems that a closer study of Angela’s arguments might turn us to something more concrete, something more specific.

Patricia Ticineto Clough is professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College of the City University of New York.

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By Aren Aizura

When Karen talked in her introduction to the forum about the “big data” surveillance state and its effect on digital labor and contractualism, I started thinking a lot about little data. For instance, parental surveillance: the time of the preteen fighting to have the “independence” of an iPhone is long gone. These days parents totally want their kids wired up. Give your kid an iPhone and you can sync her messages to download into your phone: incoherent emojis, texts from boyfriend/girlfriend and all. Want to know where your daughter is? Just bring up the app and you can see her GPS signal pulsing on the map, still or moving. This is not 1984, you understand. It’s just parents keeping track.

Even if, reading this, you identify with the teenager (who’s probably already writing text messages designed for parental surveillance and keeping a secret Tumblr she accesses on a burner phone) you’re implicated in this. How about the frightening re-emergence of the online quiz, centralized and standardized by Buzzfeed and with far more social cachet in the time of Facebook than the obnoxiously lengthy user-generated Buffy quizzes ever enjoyed back on Livejournal time: what 90s Indie band are you? What Arbitrary Object are you? Click some buttons and we’ll spew out your chart in under a minute. We are all data collectors now; more to the point, we are all data. Little data.

The ubiquity of this form of “little data” brings together many of the questions about surplus labor, oikonomics, and risk that Angela poses in Contract and Contagion. My method here is to survey some outposts of little data and intersperse with a reading of the book’s arguments. “Little data” collection and analysis is currently finding formalization in the Quantified Self movement. The Quantified Self movement (or, consistent with Deleuze’s prediction in “Postscript on the Societies of Control” of the disappearance of the “in” of individual, the subsumption of the subject by data and thus a dispensing with the preposition “the”, just plain Quantified Self) was co-founded by technolibertarian Kevin Kelly. QS promises digital tracking of health, diet, mood, and life as the solution to modern life posed as a problem of decadence and bad habits. With the right data tracking you can change just about any behavior. Contracts are never far away from the language of self-tracking. For instance, the app BeeMinder helps you keep ahead of your goals by keeping a “commitment contract” with yourself. Beeminder can prompt you to enter data yourself, or you can sync it with another tracking app. At the same time, you pledge money to meet your goals. If you don’t meet your goals, Beeminder charges you $5.

Contracts, as Mitropoulos puts it, are “preoccupied with the transformation of contingency into necessity as a specifically capitalist problem” (20). More to the point, contracts gain their legitimacy through a connection to foundation in the form of genealogy: the natural sexual and racial order, the way things should be done. But contracts are not only economic; to the extent that participation in the traditional economic and social contract depends on individual mastery of both self and property, contracts also illuminate “the nexus of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation constituted through the premise of the properly productive household” (28) and made possible by the naturalization of surplus or unpaid labor—in the form of servitude, slavery, or women’s work (or some combination of all three). Oikonomics and by extension, contractualism itself, are always already in crisis—to be managed by the proliferation of risk and uncertainty at some moments and by the reassertion of limits at other moments; the constant redistribution of surplus labor between the calculated gambles on populations that are marked as “risky” because of their racial or classed identifiers (which are transformed into data points), and the reassertion of austerity on those populations when their desires exceed the calculus of available surplus. Oikonomics proceeds through the indistinction of the micro and the macro, or the indistinction between “intimacy and economy”. Thus, the question of surplus labor is central to the wage form itself and the lines it cuts across populations:

The expansion of surplus labor that is implied in the expectation of a labor freely given — that which is seen as a naturally constituted debt, as with slavery construed as an attribute of blackness, or unpaid domestic labor regarded as a property of femininity; or that form of indebtedness apparent in the emergence of the infinite wage contract I refer to elsewhere — has always been the central logic of capitalist re/production. In this, the wage has historically indicated the shifting lines of compensatory exclusion, hierarchy and recognition. (Contract and Contagion 106)

Crucial to Contract and Contagion is an analysis of the naturalization and redistribution of surplus labor—often in the form of housework or reproductive labor marked as “women’s work.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Quantified Self folks exhibit a preoccupation with housework: one of the origin stories of QS is that it started with a computer geek who wanted to know how long he spent doing his roommate’s dishes. But some of these perspectives are critical. Amelia Abreu questions the universalist and frankly terrifying rationale of Quantified Self through a feminist analysis of data collection. Actually, she points out, data collection has everything to do with the domestic: care = tracking. “How often is what gets branded “nagging”, either maternal or spousal, just a ritual in data gathering?” Her essay traces an alternative history of domestic data collection and analysis against the enlightenment biopolitics of “big data”, placing the practice of tracking within historically feminized fields like librarianship and nursing, the move to corporate “big data” just another way that men have stolen women’s business and invented it as their own. Abreu understands caregivers as data analysts par excellence: before computers did it all for us, the traditional Fordist reproductive labor of mothering involved remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Feminine charm still means remembering the details. So then we get a contrast between the QS method of self tracking and how caregivers track under the aegis of housework: Abreu points out that caring is a grind, it’s hard work, and unquantifiable. But more to the point, caregiving is culturally devalued. The logic of QS is that every practice can be improved by tracking: but what if the practice to be tracked “veer[s] outside of the grid of what is valued and made visible by data and quantification”?

Abreu’s solution to this is to ask how Quantified Self might include those who are excluded by its ambit. “Rather than seeking to perfect measures and standards of that work through statistical working-over, can we envision workers taking their own data to management to improve working conditions? I want Quantified Self to be a messy space, one where users willingly choose the aspects of their lives they are proudest of, and most troubled by, and allow them to track, and engage with their narratives over time on their own terms.” Ambivalently stuck in the Fordist imaginary of the worker/factory even as it rejects a vision of virtuosic self-management in the same breath, this perspective sorely needs an analysis of contractualism, which would reveal the economy of performance metrics lurking in the wings of the messy utopian vision.

We arrive at a final precipice, however, when Abreu switches the imagined gaze of efficient small data collection from herself to others—given the opportunity, how would she react if she had access to the “data records” of her daughter’s preschool teacher? “Would I feel anything but simple gratitude (and a twinge of guilt) if I saw how much effort her teacher had expended?” Despite her conviction that affective labor is unquantifiable, she has little trouble imagining quantifying the worker to whom she outsources care labor. If this remark appears blissfully unaware of the national debate on teacher merit bonuses and school funding attached to student and teacher performance tracking, it also seems out of touch with the logic of indebtedness, investment and insurance that tracking assumes in the workplace—scaled up from individuals who track themselves for shits and giggles. At this juncture, also, the connection between the individual-oriented QS movement and industrial worker surveillance becomes clear: the materialization of an individual-focused QS movement could be understood as a boutique front for industrial-strength performance monitoring across work/welfare/school/borders. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Abreu dwells on the chain of care as the site of a fantasy of herself as surveilleur. The fantasy lets her off the hook of her own familial bonds and reinvents her on the “right” side of the contract. And it’s precisely the social bond between mother and child—the child’s symbolic value as investment and future recipient of property—that bind the quantification of care to heteronormative (or homonormative) oikonomics. The lesson is, we can’t afford to behave as if we’re immune to the desire to measure others’ labor. (And/but who is us, anyhow.)

The strength of the analysis I’ve made so far depends to a large degree on the measurability or immeasurability of affective labor (and beyond that, the measurability of care itself).[i] Whether we agree that affect can or cannot be measured, it is clear that domestic, undervalued modes of displaying care through memory, affect, and touch are incommensurate with the algorithmic parsing involved in entering details into a device or a phone (or that the indistinction pushed to its limit might result in tracking that looked more like a personal diary than quantifiable data). People have usefully differentiated racialized and feminized forms of reproductive labor along the faultlines of precisely these distinctions. For instance, elder care workers are understood to be less “professionally trained” than nurses, and expected (depending on the workplace) to entertain, chat with, and make friends with patients far more than “professional” nursing staff. Nurses in the global north are trained precisely to perform impersonal data collection; by contrast, South East Asian health tourism markets depend on South East Asian care workers being understood to “care more” about patients, elderly people, children, and to expect less remuneration.

Implied in the above is that we have to reject with the valorization of womanhood that Federici deploys in the passage Anne quotes: “If the house is the oikos on which the economy is built, then it is women, historically the house workers and house-prisoners, who must take the initiative to reclaim the house as a center of collective life.” This is not only because the epistemological status of women as domestic/care workers in general is conclusively challenged by trans and queer theory/politics (though that is important). It’s also because the other way to trace surplus labor is through racialization—slavery, domestic servitude, prison labor. At the scene of chattel slavery in particular, captive gender and kinship relations are fundamentally other to woman’s traditional role in the household: inside and outside the household at the same time. This is why Hortense Spillers in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” substitutes the domestic as a figure with that of the oceanic, reading the slave ship and its cargo as constituting “a wild and unclaimed richness of possibility that is not interrupted, not ‘counted’/’accounted,’ or differentiated” in which maleness and femaleness are merely quantities, masses that take up different amounts of space on the ship.[ii] Gender and kinship mean something totally different in the history Spillers traces of Black oikonomics. Under these conditions the notions of reproduction, mothering, and sexuality don’t mean a whole lot. But the attribution of some bodies as male or female and some bodies as less than either is still oikonomics. This might demand an analysis of the subjects of surplus labor as women of color—and the still-startling-to-some observation that the Fordist household and wage-relation was a historical blip and its dissolution into immaterial labor is not a huge epochal shift but how things have always been for most of us—or it might, but not only that: it demands that we forego a valorizable subject of the oikos altogether.

I want to end with some thoughts about what care IS and the potential it could unleash. Lately I’ve been thinking about affect and labor with the phrase, the communization of care. The communization of care might take place within something that doesn’t answer to the word community but aligns with what Beth Povinelli calls (a/the) socially cosubstantial: “My happiness is substantially within her unhappiness; my corporeal well-being is part of a larger mode of embodiment in which her corporeal misery is a vital organ.” (Broom Closet, 511). Examples I have given of the communization of care include the digital labor of certain kinds of crowdfunding that function as wealth redistribution[iii]; making a phone-tree or a list of people to bring food when your lover is having surgery or your friend is having a baby; how someone’s capacity to live and be mobile every day depends on a paid or unpaid collective taking care that is practiced with intent rather than the assumption of natural capacity. But reading Anne Boyer’s post this week I think this isn’t ambitious enough: if care is about how we arrange ourselves in relation to others, then it’s a kind of attention. Tracking something but not “data”.  And it’s in all the modes and all the things.

Mitropoulos too locates political potential in the question of reproduction and infrastructure: “if debt marks a crisis of social reproduction, then surely the question becomes how to generate forms of life beyond its specifically capitalist forms?” (229). Consonant with this imaginary, Mitropoulos rejects the myth of independence or political self-sufficiency: debt might instead be understood and perhaps even valorized as the “irreducible, inter-dependent sharing of a world” (229). That is, we are all in debt to each other and we should be. Care here could look like queer generation: a generation with the genus, race, ripped out and burnt. Propagation. Extension. Loans we make with each other that we don’t desire to be fulfilled. Tracing, rather than tracking, how those debts work out in relation to the other we owe and in relation to our capacities to generate credit—the “transformation of an infinite debt into an endless credit.” That might break the world apart in the best sense.

[i] See for example Patricia Clough, Greg Goldberg, Rachel Schiff, Aaron Weeks and Craig Willse, “Notes Towards A Theory of Affect-Itself,” ephemera 7: 1 (2007), 60-77.

[ii] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” diacritics 17: 2 (1987), 72.

[iii] I’m thinking especially of Miss Major’s Giving Circle here, where the long time Bay Area activist and elderly trans woman of color Miss Major is supported partially through waged folks signing up to give her monthly household money. Also of crowdfunding hijacked to redistribute money from rich people to prison commissary funds, queer of color high teas, and (for example) sex work activists who can’t work because they’re being harassed by the police. These examples share the quality of not functioning as “investments” in a finished product such as a film/play/project; to donate in them is to effectively refuse the contractualism of the question, “Where will my money go?”

Aren Aizura is an Assistant Professor in Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. He researches how queer and transgender bodies shape and are shaped by technologies of race, gender, transnationality, medicalization and political economy. 

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By Constantina Zavitsanos

Angela Mitropoulos is giving me so much I kind of can’t take it all. My only wish is that I got ahold of this book sooner, before it got such a hold on me—and it’s really got a hold on me from every angle without handle even. Reading this is like finding some kind of whatever was a paperclip before there was paper and getting all hot and bothered about what to even clip to. Theorizing—grounding—the contract is such a great turn to the transductive, transformative power of relating in all those interstitial spaces capitalism polices but can’t really plan for or against. About 226 years before its time and simultaneously way too late, this book arrives like a good thief who gives you what’s valuable precisely by what they take from you.

I like what Mitropoulos draws out topologically in her intro here about questions for the “interior and exterior boundaries of the wage contract” as opposed to a “system of commensurability and representation”. Right now I’m trying to think through this thing around the flow of boundaries and bond, using this form of occlusion or occultation, a coming around and a going around and sometimes even a rut or a block, but always as this primary resist. I think of this kind of figure/ground fusion when I hear that phrase resistance is primary. In watercolor painting, when you want to plan around contingency and spread in what is often called an ‘unforgiving’ medium, you first put wax down on the paper and it clings there on and under the ground or support (both painting terms for the reproductive work of the canvas or paper) such that any medium introduced later can’t go there at all. I love to read an image from the ground, a figure from the under, to be too close to see or subject. This is so often where we are in capital and it’s hard to remember sometimes that when things feel most totalizing that this too is a set, that in that outside, in that surround, there is gossip and goings-on ongoing and already been.

I don’t mean this as a metaphor though, rather a strategy or a way to look at a thing side-eyed, or periscopically, like a way to get around a corner. On a metonymic level though, the ground and the subterranean are the basic bitches that been here. And as Melissa Buzzeo once told me with my eyes shut, before I knew her name, the underground is touching the over everywhere. So after I read, Ima dig what Mitropoulos bores into on page 65-66…

Furthermore, the extraction of surplus labour is made possible by the affective registers and architecture that legitimate the implied contractualism of the oikos, in the presentation of surplus labour as obligation, indebtedness and gift through definitions of contract as a species of unbreakable covenant, in the presumption of contract as the performance of voluntary submission, reciprocity and exchange, and in the divisions of labour as the attributions of gender, race, citizenship and sexuality, that are arranged and characterised as the naturalised order of the oikos. Recurrently trinitarian in structure, political- economy’s delineations of value, exchange, and surplus value are echoed in anthropological myth and political philosophy as the three dimensions of divine power, fraternal equality, and oikos – which is to say, that which is bestowed from above and for all time, which grants the equivalence of self-possession, that is, in turn, grounded in the gift of naturalised obligation (construed as eternal, albeit subterranean).

Fuck an equal brother and the estate. No really. How can we get past this sibling rivalry to really fuck from the groundskeeping of liberation? This question for queer reproduction is a measure and meniscus on the genealogical mishap that is the queer alien baby in a mis/gendered bonnet, the root of that dis/gendered dis/abled futurity against fitness—surviving, and the communization of these liens of reproduction as vital.

This is a diagram of the video I made in response —perhaps what also structures architecture and perspectival space of the image or plane—as a drawing device and also as pictorial figuration. I want to get a bit parallactic to the corner both institutionally and physically and I am trying to think of these perspectival relations in time not just in space, through the temporal pacing of reading against an exterior soundscape that leaks inside.


The working title for this online version is intended as a call to the epistolary form and is dated with time and place (a global positioning system) for Angela Mitropoulos, who right now is really moving me deeply.

February February 22, 2014 9:52 Melbourne
Digital Video 2:45



February 22, 2014 9:52 Melbourne from constantina zavitsanos on Vimeo.

Constantina Zavitsanos is an artist whose attends to the permeable body and its social spaces—the financialization of time; conditions of capture and the grounds of capital; fugitivity and intimacy; sex, death, debt, and debility; holes, holds, folds, breaks, contracts and contractions.

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Part II | What Tender Possibilities: An infra-oikos, an under-oikos

By Anne Boyer

Part Two 

In the 19th century, feminists made plans for kitchenless houses.  This was so women would not have to work for free. By ripping the kitchen out of the home these feminists made, through blue prints, a dream of an oikos with a hole in it.  It was a dream of a reproductive labor strike built into the dream of a home. Consider these contemporary equivalents to the kitchenless house: What is the architecture for “sex strike”? What cities could be built in such a manner that we will never be told to “smile” again?  If there is now this global mega-oikos, what would be the equivalent of the mega-oikos with the kitchen ripped out? As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “Suppose, then, we construct the ideal city for riot and insurrection…” I wonder “Suppose, then, we construct the ideal oikos for the same.”

If we might imagine a household built for riot, we could, like those 19th century feminists, construct this ideal household through the stubborn ripping out of the heart of the mega-oikos. Like a city with a sinkhole in it, we could make this insurrectionary oikos. Here the household would be looted of what we need (care, love, sustenance) and what is not needed (sexual and familial violence, enslavement, racialized and gendered divisions of labor) is left for the flames. An oikos-built-for-riot and the riot-of-the-oikos in any shape would force what appears to be the polis—the often violently enforced boundary of the oikos—into a significantly different shape, too.  The polis itself, so transformed by the transformation of the oikos, would take on its own unique shape: perhaps half daycare center, half insurrectionary terrain.

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This scheme of a looted oikos and a polis of rioting toddlers is possibly Hannah Arendt’s nightmare, also the dream made possible by Hannah Arendt.   It is this reason that I will address her at some length in this part of my response. As Arendt wrote, “the human heart a place of darkness,” and so, too, can be the “household” as it exists. In this sense I am sympathetic to Arendt, for the mere relocation of reproductive labor as we know it (as in, for example, Occupy) comes to the limit of itself, for it brings along a relocation of the gendered and racialized violence that enforce the boundaries of the polis.

Mitropoulos is a sharp reader of Arendt, sensitive to the weaknesses and contradictions in Arendt’s thinking without being caught up in despair of them, so Mitropoulos reminds us politics also, for Arendt only takes place in plurality. Infrapolitics, the reminder that politics takes place between the people in this plurality, is precisely why the heart as itself is a dim ground for action: politics can’t happen inside of us, only between us. Politics requires infrastructure: what is between, what can exist before us, without us, and after us, too.  Mitropoulos asserts that infrastructure can be a contract, and as I argue in my analysis of Xenophon the first part of my response, building on some of Mitropoulos’ ideas, I think, too, that infrastructure can be what is beside the contract: care.

Though care exhibits, in significant ways, contractual elements (or the contract retains elements of care), and care is increasingly subject to as set of brutal hypercontractual arrangements[1], the underlying structure of care—the relation of the household to the household—provides an escape the strict delimitations of what we understand of the contractual. In her notes for this forum, Mitropoulos proposes that “tactical engagement with the world of contracts might not foreclose, and instead encourage, the development of a relationality—a politics and economics of the in-between—that can break with the limits of the contractual.” Care is the possibility of this kind of tactical engagement, developing new, necessary, and materially transformative politics.  As it is increasingly forced on us by austerity and social measures to retrench a genealogically formed oikos, we could force it back, creating a “contagious” or leaky oikos. As we learned in the Oikonomikos, a wife can wreck the economy, so then the “wife’s duty”—care, in its deployment, withdrawal, or even, in the case of Ischomachus’ “real” wife, its perverse deployment— has the power to remove the ground in which the contract as we think of it now is founded.

The wage relation enabled by the contract is terrible, but it grants, as Mitropoulos points out, “the compensatory distinction between those with, on the one hand, the authority to contract and those, on the other hand, who laboured under the condition of slavery or unpaid domestic labour.” This is not nothing. Through the ability to enter a contract, then, even out of a slave or woman, a free man was [almost] made.  But that this is our available freedom is Capital’s tragedy: care could confer, without the contract’s limits, a new concept of a new political subject created by care’s unique mode of the infrapolitical.  A politics based on this seized interrelation could provide a free relation barely imagined as it would require an unloosing from the schemes of domination based on sex, race, lifespan and the schemes of domination brought by property and the wage relation. In this it is this oikos with a sinkhole in it: or to use another Arendtian schema—freedom’s abyss[2]: the “hole” created by a new event, brought about by “the freedom to call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known.”

I want to continue to create, somewhat disobediently, a kind of sinkhole in Arendt’s own thinking. In The Human Condition, Arendt writes:

The political realm rises directly out of acting together, the ‘sharing of words and deeds.’ Thus action not only has the most intimate relations to the public part of the world common to us all, but is the one activity which constitutes it. … The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be. ‘Wherever you go, you will be the polis.’

I would like to consider the possibility located in Arendt, but also beyond her, that the “sharing of words and deeds” she located in the polis can also be the “sharing of the words and deeds” that is the care that occurs in the oikos.  Care is action—even, though Arendt was not able to see this, in the Arendtian sense—and care is also a method of organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together. “Wherever you go, you will be the oikos, too.” 

Care is only removed from the realm of action and potential freedom when it is forcibly extracted through violence, slavery, “love,” and social limitations upon those who are required to give it. But it is important to say that “care” bears no more natural relation to this “indoor body” as subject of violence than a woman’s body actually bears to a person who must remain indoors. The arrangement in which we must give or receive care is historical, not natural, and the primacy of the contract as political infrastructure is not uncontestable.  Care as we know it is brutally managed through contracts, violence, and the theatre of the marketplace because the infrastructure provided by care provides a real risk to what we know as politics. Care is not a symmetrical relation, or even a semi-symmetrical one like the fraternal performance of contracts: instead, it is atomic, shifting, unfixed, perpetually transformed, not limited to the human subject, but extended in relation to the world of objects and environments. Care, then, is the infrastructural method that rather than attempting to always insure against the aleatory, asserts its own potential to out aleatory-the-aleatory. Constantina Zavitsanos pointed out in a response to an earlier draft, care, as the relation of life and death, surpasses even the bonds of affection: even our enemies require it to live.

What happens in the oikos is important: we need to be born, to give birth, to make love, to eat, to sleep, to have bodies, to be sick, to be cared for, to comfort each other when sad or wounded, to experience joy together, to be mourned when we die.  Arendt sees this, but she fails at the moment she asserts, axiomatically, that these things must necessarily be private so that the public can be public.  This prescription is the failure that comes from Arendt’s fidelity to historical description: for a thinker who understands better than any other the “miracle,” she was, in this, remarkably closed to the one I would propose.

Imagine this: not the oikos of Xenophon—no estate of crude walls, violence or the threat of it, no site of exploited unwaged labor, racialized terror, gendered violence, or other waking nightmares of the private; not the oikos as it creates the condition for the terrible wage with its wagelessness, and its wagelessness creates, also, the desire to contract—to be, despite this freedom’s obvious limitations, “free”; not the political actor of Machiavelli, machinated by “domestic tyranny” and terrorized by “effeminacy” who must self-manage through the management of everyone else; not a quasi-polis full of the political actors of Althusser, Strauss, Negri, and others who Mitropoulos points out rely on “a definition of political agency in masculine terms.”

Imagine instead that leaky mega-oikos, contagious with care, ready for riot, taking a new shape and forcing this shape into the polis, dispersing and swerving, like the dream of a kitchenless house of the 19th century—a mega-oikos in the shape of what Mitropoulos calls “a promiscuous infrastructure.” Here, Mitropoulos gets to the point which most compels my thinking: “In the seemingly tangential arguments over how to organize the labor that goes in to sustaining the occupations, how to arrange kitchens, energy, medical care, shelter, communications and more, in the correlations between homelessness and #occupy encampments, in the very questions posed of how to take care of each other in conditions of palpable uncertainty, live the pertinent issues of the oikos of in these times.”

These questions are, to me, not only posed by encampments and occupations, though it has been in these moments recently that we have found our failures and from these failures our potential strategies.  Indeed, “how to arrange” ourselves and our infrastructure is the question forced back at us at every turn by this minute of history: it is as much a question posed by the blockade or the riot as it is the occupation, it is as much a question posed by the struggle in the home or for a home as it is in the struggle in the workplace and the streets.  It is there when we are sick and there is no one to care for us or our people are sick and we are not there to care for them or when we have no people at all; it is there in the ports and shipping hubs; it is there in our digitized labors and the industrial and reproductive labors that support them; it is there in the leveler of an unstable climate that increasingly turns even what we might think of the polis into an urgent site of necessary care and renders the oikos as shelter for no one. The leaky oikos can be what abolishes the distinction between oikos and polis itself.  The horizon presented by oikopolitics is the horizon of anti-politics.  Care is the question forced on us by capital. It will not go unanswered, but as we are as much history as anyone, it is what we must answer ourselves.

As Silvia Federici wrote in the closing essay of Revolution at Point Zero, “If the house is the oikos on which the economy is built, then it is women, historically the house workers and house-prisoners, who must take the initiative to reclaim the house as a center of collective life.”   But the house women and others historically positioned in the oikos must claim now will be the one with the old walls dismantled, with the kitchen ripped out, with the dream of the insurrection built into its architecture, with the sinkhole in the middle, with the knowledge that the polis itself will be infected by new infrastructures, radically breached. A friend recently told me, “Contracts are for capitalists, lawyers, fathers; promises are for militants, lovers, friends.” Our care must become our weapon. Contracts will be broken; care must persist.  Wherever we go, we will be the oikos, but it is in this, and its possibilities, there is the promise that a future we want might exist.

[1] For more on these historical developments in the U.S. and their effects on women and the poor, see Gwendolyn Mink’s Welfare’s End.

[2] For a fascinating expansion of Arendt’s notion of freedom in relation to feminism, including a thoughtful consideration of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s Sexual Difference (to me an important work when considering paracontractual nature of care), I recommend Linda Zerelli’s Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom.

You can read Part One of What Tender Possibilities here:

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What Tender Possibilities: Two Meditations on the Oikos

By Anne Boyer

Part One

In Contract and Contagion, Angela Mitropoulos establishes the possibility of a politics of the oikos that accounts for more complexity than the Arendtian conception of the private or Marxian theories about reproductive and productive labor. In her account, oikopolitics involves self-management of the masculinized political subject through the management of the household and a performed contractual insurance against uncertainty. I began to think of the form she suggested as the mega-oikos, the oikoplex, or the oikostructure: a world household that enables the hyper-contractualism necessary to post-Fordist capitalism. Without the household, there would be no contracting subjects.  However relations between these fraternal subjects, like everything else in a world of crowds and contagion in which a Lucretian dissolution of the known order of things always threaten, are uncertain because of the uncertainty of the household itself: the contract then is a method to make of contingency necessity, to valorize risk. My response, which is in two parts, first looks closely at the Oikonomikos and what it might tell us about contracts, care, and the gendered division of labor.  The second part will address what looking through the lens of oikopolitics could mean for possible futures.

1. “Supposing he never had a flute of his own.”

It is probably important to return to the household of approximately 2376 years ago. As far as we can tell, it looked like this:

In the front of the household were the women’s rooms—the gynaikonitis.  Behind these were the common areas and the living quarters for the men—the andronitis. It was there one could find the libraries.  The men’s area, along with the household, was also wherever was outside of the household—that is, the free man’s area was the oikos and the polis and was the world.  The oikos was always at least a double space, and doubly perceived, just as what is outside of it was always a singular territory on which slaves and women trespassed. The singular nature of the outside was enforced by violence or the threat of it. The free men’s home was the women’s factory; also—for women and slaves—their factory was a home on its knees.benqt60_1296374451_6-6-9

We might also look into this household through Xenophon’s Oikonomikos, a foundational text of “household management” (economics).  As the architecture of the oikos was an architecture, among other things, about managing women: the Oikonomikos is also, among other things, is a lecture on lecturing to them. This is my reading of it.

The Oikonomikos is a Socratic dialogue, and in it, Socrates, having little wealth, has no claim to a practical knowledge of managing it.  When Critoboulus asks him “A science of economy exists; and that being so, what hinders you from being its professor?” Socrates replies that what hinders him is what hinders a man from playing the flute when he has no flute and no one has ever let him borrow one. This does not, however, actually stop Socrates the fluteless flute-player[1] from then becoming a professor of economics.

In order to do this, Socrates offers an account of an interaction with the “good and beautiful” Ischomachus, who offers an account of his own goodness and beauty as achieved, in part, through a successful lecture about household management to his wife. Ischomachus is lecturing his wife precisely because he himself cannot engage in household management.  As a man, he says, he would be punished by God for doing women’s work: this is why his wife must listen to his lecture, so she can do it, instead, as his proxy. In this, it appears that Ischomachus’ knowledge of household management is as speculative as that of the economy-less economics professor, Socrates.

We thus have a double level of flute-less flute-playing: Socrates, who must only speculate, lectures with the lecture of Ischomachus, who also must only speculate. Ischomachus’ wife, we are told, knows nothing, either, (she “had been most carefully brought up to see and hear as little as possible, and to ask the fewest questions”) but is “accustomed” to her husband’s hand. By this, Ischomachus makes clear, he means “tamed.”

It is either through this nested speculative lecture in speculative lecture or the careful listening of a tamed (and docile-y un-speculative) wife at the heart of the story, that economics—the dismal science— or in its guise a celebration of the gendered division of labor and male self-management, an even more dismal art—arrives.  Managing wealth is much the same as managing women: indeed, Ischomachus’ wife must manage the household and be the household at the same time.

Perhaps Ischomachus’ wife[2] could provide an economic analysis with some degree of expertise despite Ischomachus’ certainty that she had been disciplined out of all curiosity and perception. She is not, however, allowed to do much in this dialogue but agree and ask her husband-flattering questions. The very quality that enables her to run a household (being a woman) is that which prohibits her from speaking about it or outside of it.

Mitropoulos tells us that historically “Xenophon’s writings accrue importance at particular moments precisely because they blur (if not quite erase) the Aristotelian distinction between the egalitarian logic of politics and the hierarchical one of the oikos.” For me, Xenophon’s dialogue as a dialogue also takes on a particularly interesting character of Mitropoulos’ thinking about contracts. The contract, like the philosophical dialogue, is a “manly masquerade”—a performative exchange among male subjects.  And the philosophical dialogue, like the contract, seeks to tame uncertainty, “what amounts to an often-violent containment or framing of the speculative.”  As Mitropoulos notes, “contracts are part of the making of what they say” and “the contract is an artifice, involving fiction and not always fact. In this, the performativity of contract assumes the character of a violent aesthetic.”  The uncertainty to be tamed by the art[ifice] of this contract/and/or/dialogue of the Oikonomikos is women (or one woman, Ischomachus’ wife), and along with her, the household. The highly speculative Oikonomikos is, then, is a philosophical dialogue in the shape of a contract or contract in the shape of a dialogue, and in its framing of “economics” as founded in the gendered division of labor, it makes what it says.

God made of women an indoor body, Ischomachus tells his wife, and made of men an outdoor one.  And this scheme—what becomes, in future iterations, public and private, of production and reproduction, of waged work and unpaid servitude—is the order agreed upon in this dialogue to attend to the risk posed by those who make the oikos.  Like the queen-bee, Ischomachus tells his wife, she too, will have to stay inside.

Ischomachus’ wife can’t speak for herself in this dialogue just as she cannot negotiate and sign a contract. She is instead, as Ischomachus reminds her at the beginning of his instruction, introduced to the household the subject of a contract between her husband and her father[3]. What Ischomachus’ wife does engage in, according to Ischomachus’ description of what she must do in the household, is something a little like the contract, but also to the side of it. His wife provides care, which while having some elements of the contractual, can also be understood as paracontractual.

If the contract is the form of relation impossible in the hierarchal structure of the household; care is the form of relation that can take place between members of the household (women, slaves, children, animals, the infirm).  Care is the infrastructural relation that takes place beside the contract, among parties who can either be “equal” or not.  Remember, however—members of the household, like Ischomachus’ wife—also are the household.  So unlike contracts that take place between the “free and equal” engaging fraternal relation, care is the form of exchange that takes place, too, between the household and the household.  Care may be between human and human, but also human and object, human and animal, animal and animal or human, old and young, male and female, female and female, and so on.  It’s a relation that does not assume or require even a theatre of equality, but also in no sense either does it require a theatre of domination.

In this difference, the household (and all associated with it) in its relation to itself demonstrates a possible infrastructure for politics that lies beyond the contract.  If Ischomachus’ wife could speak she might tell us that though denied the power to contract, she has the more potentially destabilizing economic and political power to provide or deny care, that paracontractual relation on which the contract depends (I began to think here, if an analogy is useful, of the paracontractual relation or care like the “all the world” that is the stage; and those who perform contracts mere actors upon it.) Both Socrates and Ischomachus note, it is the wife (particularly one who is not properly tamed) who can bring disorder to the economy.  The dialogue suggests the household to be managed is a woman; the woman to be managed is a household— but also, the woman must be “managed” into managing, and in this is exposed the power she holds over reproduction and reproductive labor, and also that she, herself, is embodied risk. 

According to Mitropoulos, our age of oikopolitics, ushered in by Machiavelli, for whom “what men and states must avoid at all costs is resembling women,” depends on this balance of equality (between masculinized political subjects) and hierarchy (over the household).  As life under capital depends on contractual relations—notably labor contracted between free people— these contractual relations (Marx’s “very Eden of the innate rights of man”) rest on “the foundational gift of naturalized servitude, which is to say, the surplus labor that is always unpaid.”  That is, it is the unwaged labor—what the queen bee does with her “indoor body”—that allows the contractual relation of wage labor—what is done with “outdoor bodies”—to exist.

Oikopolitics is, for Mitropoulos, “the nexus of race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation constituted through the premise of the properly productive household.” That is, it provides an analytic that “moves beyond the epistemological reliance on either identity…or the flattening of differences” but considers the hierarchal difference imposed by genealogy on certain types of bodies and people and the relation of this to all else. “A politics of the household,” writes Mitropoulos, “turns on that most materialist of propositions: we are how we live. What forms of attachment, interdependency, and indebtedness are being implemented, funded, obliged or simply and violently enforced; and what tender possibilities are foreclosed?”


[1] As Robin James points out in her talk Philosophical Attunements: Flutes & Women in Plato’s Symposium, in the ancient world, flutes have a relationship to uncertainty, training, and women. The flute can’t be tuned, only trained. As James quotes: “in the case of flute-playing, the harmonies are found not by measurement but by the hit and miss of training, and quite generally music tries to find the measure by observing vibrating strings. So there is a lot of imprecision mixed up in it and very little reliability” (Philebus 56a).   James further concludes: “Women and other non-philosophers, like flutes, have a disproportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure. Philosophers, on the other hand, have a proportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure.”  If Socrates, and Ischomachus, are flute-less flute players, this suggests their fundamental alienation from the women (and the household) and their attempt to manage its relations.

[2] Ischomachus’ wife’s name, though it is never mentioned by Xenophon, is Chrysilla. Later, according to ancient rumor, she seduced her son-in-law, drove out her daughter, and had a son by her son-in-law, perhaps appropriately enacting her revenge on the order of the household in which she was trained.

[3] For more on the marriage contract as foundational, see Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract.

You can continue reading Part Two of What Tender Possibilities here:

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Oikonomic ratio-nality: sound, sophrosyne, & the “excesses of affection”

By Robin James 

First, I want to thank Karen for organizing this symposium, all my fellow participants for their amazing work, and especially Angela for writing such an incisive, provocative, and important book. Second, I want to set up this post, which is basically a long set-up to one question or set of questions. I’m going to wind my way through some philosophy and some sound studies to then ask about gender/race/sexuality.

Contracts, according to Mitropoulos, “allocate uncertainty” (47). They naturalize it, obscure it, and make it productive. Uncertainty, fallibility, and “limited human knowledge” (44) are inevitable, so each type or theory of contracts attempts to domesticate these epistemological bugs and turn them into political-economic features. That transformation or translation is the work of what Mitropoulos calls oikonomics, which I’ll return to below. Contracts are epistemological just as much as they are social or political (or oikonomical). In this way, Mitropoulos’s text helps us understand why Charles Mills had to begin his argument in The Racial Contract with an extended discussion of the “epistemology of ignorance.” I don’t have time to develop this point here, but it would be interesting to use Contract & Contagion as a way to bring the last decade or so of feminist scholarship on epistemologies of ignorance back to bear on contract theory and political economy.

Mills argues that the racial contract is a “cognitive dysfunction that is socially functional (RC 18).” Mitropoulos suggests that what contract does, especially the classical contract, is provide an answer to this question: Which cognitive dysfunctions make society function in the way that is best for us? Or, how do we treat uncertainty (cognitive dysfunction, what is unknowable with accuracy) so that society can function in specific ways? (C&C 40-42). These “specific ways” are, of course, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. Contract, in its various historically specific forms, organizes uncertainty to allow for the ongoing vitality and reproduction of white supremacist capitalists heteropatriarchy in its various historically-specific forms.

Contracts organize uncertainty not just rationally, but with ratios. As Mitropoulos explains: Contract is engaged in a constant rationalisation–or better: ratiocination, in the sense one may speak of ratio as calculation and of rationing as the apportionment–of its uncertain conditions (26). Contracts mobilize ratios to distribute uncertainty in ways that allow for the faithful, fidelious reproduction of white heteropatriarchal capitalism. How does this work? What kinds of ratios are used? How are ratios measured or balanced?


I want to spend the rest of my post focused on this issue of “ratio” because it gets straight to the heart of oikonomics, both as a historical concept and as a contemporary practice. The purpose of oikonomics is to measure and balances these ratios. But what is the nomos of the oikos? How is the oikos measured and balanced to best transmit and reproduce systems of privilege? The ratio-nality of oikonomics is harmonic. This is not just because the ancient Greeks understood musical harmony in terms of ratios (i.e., of geometric proportions such as 12:9:8:6, as in Pythagorean music theory), or because nomos is also a kind of ancient Greek song, but also because the ancient Greek concept of “intimate self-management” (C&C 22) or “self-command” (C&C 28)–i.e., sophrosyne–is premised on their theory of musical harmony. Plato, for example, often uses sophrosyne and “harmony” interchangeably, especially in the Republic.[1] Sophrosyne, generally translated as “moderation,” is the practice of bringing one’s mind and body in proper proportion (so that individual mind:body::intelligible:visible as expressed in, for example, Plato’s theory of the divided line).[2] A moderate man’s life appeared harmonious because it exhibited a “beautiful order and continence of certain pleasures and appetites, as they say, using the phrase ‘master of himself’” (Republic 430e; emphasis mine). A moderate “order” was “beautiful” because it was harmonious, proportionate, and followed the same “ratio” that ordered the Beautiful itself (aka the Good or the True).

Ancient Greek sophrosyne was also a practice of “self-mastery,” as Foucault puts it in The History of Sexuality volume 2.  As such, sophrosyne is the ancient Greek version of what Mitropoulous calls oikonomical “self-command.”[3] This self-command was the “law” or nomos–the harmony, the song, the measure–that the true and proper master of the oikos ought to embody, and which he ought to make his oikos likewise embody (see Plato’s Phaedo for the relationship on self-command to the command of others). Sophrosyne is what, in ancient Greece, joins the oikos to the nomos, as Mitropoulos discusses in her introduction to this series. Oikonomics, as a matter of sophrosyne in the ancient Greek sense, is a practice of maintaining a proportional life.

As a matter of what we might call neoliberal sophrosyne, oikonomics is still a matter of exercising harmonious self-command. However, just as notions of musical harmony have changed since Plato and Pythagoras’s times, so has the ratio of “self-command.” This ratio isn’t geometric, but algorithmic. Here, harmony isn’t a matter of proportions, but acoustics. The acoustic is algorithmic: contemporary acoustics use algorithms to describe sound waves, just as statistics stole a bunch of terms from acoustics to describe algorithms (e.g., “signal” and “noise”). “The laws of acoustics,” argues economist and music scholar Jacques Attali, are “displa[y] all of the characteristics of the technocracy managing the great machines of the repetitive [i.e., neoliberal] economy” (Noise 113). What acoustics and neoliberal technocracy share are algorithms, especially insofar as both are visualized as sine waves. (I’ve talked a bit about sine waves and neoliberal aesthetics here.)


Synthesizers, especially the analog synths that were common at the time Attali wrote Noise (1977), are, for Attali, the clearest example of the coincidence of algorithmic music and technocratic machinery: you put in one kind of algorithm (a computer program), and another one (a sound wave) comes out. He also claims that “the synthesizer” operates with the same “simulacrum of self-management” (Noise 114; emphasis mine) that is attributed to a nominally “free” deregulated market.[4] The synthesizer, with is algorithmic inputs and outputs, embodies neoliberal sophrosyne.

So how would algorithmic moderation and self-management work? What counts as algorithmic moderation? What ratio should an algorithmically self-managed practice embody? Algorithmic moderation measures the ratio of signal to noise in a tone, broadcast, or data set. This ratio is not a geometric proportion, but a statistical probability—the probability of finding noise in the signal. It is calculated and expressed as one’s position relative to an asymptote—i.e., a limit. At the level of individual self-management, the asymptote is, as are all asymptotes, “a threshold that cannot be crossed” (Foucault Birth of Biopolitics 136). This threshold is the point of diminishing returns beyond which any attempts at maximization cease to be profitable. As a practice of moderation, the asymptote manifests as the imperative to “somehow push them[selves] to their limit and full reality” (BoB 138) while “governing at the border between the too much and the too little, between the maximum and the minimum fixed for me” (BoB 19). It’s easy to visualize that maximum and minimum as the upper and lower asymptotes of a sine wave. Neoliberal sophrosyne is the practice of distorting oneself as much as possible–being as “loud,” as “gaga,” as manic-pixie-dreamy, as “ludacris” as possible–without upsetting the overall signal.

Sophrosyne translates algorithms to affect, mathematical propositions to kinesthetic and aesthetic properties. If human capital is “the unfolding of (capitalist) economic logic onto putatively non-market behaviours” (149), sophrosyne explains how market mechanisms can manifest in and across bodies as affects.

So how, then, does acoustic sophrosyne relate to oikonomics? Mitropoulos argues that “human capital theory is a theory of oikonomia” (149). Interpreted through my reading of oikonomia as (acoustic) sophrosyne, this means that building capital in oneself is a matter of behaving moderately–of maxing oneself out while minimizing the noise one feels. That is, you build capital in yourself by maintaining the proper signal: noise ratio for someone in your position. If you’re relatively privileged, this means that you maintain your signal:noise ratio by dumping any noise that would set you off balance on to someone(s) with less privilege. As Mitropoulos explains, “oikonomia legitimates the distribution of surplus labour, orders the excesses of affection, allocating its subjects and objects” (174, emphasis mine). I interpret “excesses of affection” as noise, or as ir-ratio-nal affect. These “excesses of affection” are ordered so that any diminishing returns are experienced primarily by women, non-whites, and queers. Privileged subjects get to go to excess, to push themselves beyond their own limits, because their push is fueled by the excess or surplus labor of, say, “women’s work.” Or, one can go to “ludicrous speed” and still emit/receive a rational signal if and only if white cisheteromasculinity filters out the excess noise and sends it back to women, non-whites, trans* people, queers, and so on. In other words, the oikos, in its “genealogical” (in Mitropoulos’s sense) work, sets and maintains the signal:noise ratio (the nomos) proper to each kind of subject or subject-position or population segment. The oikos is the producer behind the glass setting all the levels, pushing the sliders, and twisting the knobs on the big mixing board that is biopolitical capitalism. Or, from another perspective, the oikos is the background against which some kinds of distortion and noise sound good, and others sound bad.

So after that set-up, some questions:

  • I’ve been pretty abstract and schematic thus far. How might we make this analysis more concrete? In particular, I would like to think about how my concept of sophrosyne as signal:noise ratio relates to the oikonomic management of affective labor. I mean, in a certain sense this is what C&C is all about… but I would like to make these connections more explicitly.
  • How does oikonoimics position some kinds of labor/laborers/”bare life” as impossible to moderate? In ancient Greece, women’s bodies and slaves bodies were thought to be too disproportionate to ever produce properly moderate ideas and/or speech. (This is why, as Anne discusses/will discuss in her post, ancient Greek household management (aka oiko-management) means tuning the women to follow the sounds of men’s speech.) What’s the acoustic/neoliberal equivalent? Is there one? (How) Do patriarchy and the legacy of slavery (e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex) produce populations as inherently noisy, unbalanced, etc.? How does big data work algorithmically to produce specific populations as immoderate?
  • Mitropoulos argues that oikoniomics is about genealogical transmission. Might we think of contemporary, algorithmic/acoustic oikonomics as transmitting property, wealth, and privilege in the manner that broadcast signals or electrical signals are transmitted?
  • How does the issue of noise relate back to the opening idea of uncertainty? Where does “contract” come back in to signal:noise ratios and moderate practice?
  • This is a question about philosophical aesthetics, but it relates back to the role of contract in apportioning uncertainty, on the one hand, and affect, on the other. The phrase “as if” recurs throughout Contract & Contagion. For example, Mitropoulos cites Keynes, who claims “we are compelled to behave ‘as if we had behind us a good benthamite calculation’ because we are compelled to act as ‘practical men’” (43). Or, later, she says: “It is not, then, authentic human sociability that is valorised in affective labour, but the apparently genuine circulation of affect as if it is not work” (174; all underlined emphasis mine). What is the role of the “as if” in (a) contract and (b) Contract & Contagion? How is this “as if” related to the “as if” in Kantian aesthetics?
    • Let me briefly explain Kant’s “as if.” In Kant’s analysis of fine art and genius in the third critique, he argues that art needs to follow rules to make sense and be meaningful, but, fine art must be free (and not mechanical). In a work of fine art, “the purposive [rational, rule-abiding] in its form must seem as free from all constraint of chosen rules as if it were a product of mere nature” (Critique of Judgment section 45.1; emphasis mine). There’s that “as if”–what does it mean? It means that we have to treat the rule-governed, premeditated elements of artworks like they are not the product of an artist’s labor, but a spontaneous manifestation of non-cognized “nature”.[5] The “as-if” is what, in Kant, lets artworks (and artists, and spectators) appear “free” in relation to labor. Kant writes: “fine art must be free art in a double sense: it must be free in the sense of not being a mercenary occupation and hence a kind of labor, whose magnitude can be judged, exacted, or paid for according to a determinate standard; but fine art must also be free in the sense that, though the mind is occupying itself, yet it feels satisfied and aroused (independently of any pay) without looking to some other purpose” (52.5) I think it’s important to ask about the relationship between the “as if” in Kant and the “as if” in Contract & Contagion for several reasons:
      •  Kant’s ethics and aesthetics are an explicit alternative to social contract theory’s answer to the question: “so now that everyone is free and self-managing, how do we exist together in society?” Social contract theory says we consent to give up some of our self-management in return for some security in ourselves and our property. Kant, however, turns to the categorical imperative and the judgment of taste–i.e., to the ideal of subjective universality, or the idea that every single individual would/ought to freely choose the same thing. If in the 18th century Kant’s ethics and aesthetics were an alternative to social contract theory’s framing of the issue of self-management, is it perhaps one of the things that gets “subsumed” by neoliberal capital and contracts? Or, if Kant uses affect and aesthetics as an alternative to classically liberal contracts, is the prevalence of the “as if” in C&C evidence of the “real subsumption” of this Kantian understanding of the aesthetic in neoliberal oikonomia?
      • In Kant, women weren’t capable of the “as-if”: they could neither act nor appear “free” in relation to labor. For example, women could not produce beautiful works or themselves be beautiful in character–they could only be/make charming things. How does Mitropoulos’s concept of oikonomia help us see how the gendered, racialized “as if” works similarly in our understanding of affective labor and its relation to “free” markets and “free” subjects?

[1] Republic 410c, he states that “guardians,” or the masters of the city, “…should possess both natures,” mind and body, that these natures must “be harmoniously adjusted to one another…And the soul of the man thus attuned is moderate” (emphasis mine).

[2] “his whole soul [is] brought to its best by acquiring moderation and justice accompanied by prudence…in proportion as soul is more honorable than body” (Republic 591b).

[3] In fact, even Foucault emphasizes that sophrosyne is a matter of proportion: “it was this prior condition of ‘ethical virility’ that provided one with the right sense of proportion for the exercise of ‘sexual virility,’ according to a model of ‘social virility’” (Foucault HSv2 83).

[4] “The place of an individual in the modern economy is no different from that of [Philip] Glass’s interpreter: whatever he does, he is no more than an aleatory element in a statistical law. Even if in appearance everything is a possibility for him, on the average his behavior obeys specifiable, abstract, ineluctable functional laws” (Noise 114-5).

[5] “A product of art appears like nature if, though we find it to agree quite punctiliously with the rules that have to be followed for the product to become what it is intended to be, it does not do so painstakingly. In other words, the academic form must not show; there must be no hint that the rule was hovering before the artist’s eyes and putting fetters on his mental powers” (Kant CoJ section 45.2). “Hence fine art cannot itself devise the rule by which it is to bring about its product. Since, however, a product can never be called art unless it is preceded by a rule, it must be nature in the subject (and through the attunement of his powers that gives the rule to art; in other words, fine art is possible only as the product of genius” (45.3). Fine art gets its rules indirectly, non-consciously, from the ‘natural’ attunement of material/nature of the genius.

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies at UNCC. She is also a sound artist and regular contributor to Cyborgology. She can be found on Twitter @doctaj. 

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Introduction Continued…

Today we continue with an introduction to Contract & Contagion. Here, Angela turns to the questions of theory and  methodology that inform her work. For sociologists reading, I think you will find her range of theory and critical engagement with systems theory to be of much interest.

Enjoy. And, see you in the comments.

Part two:

The second question—and it follows from whether and indeed how experimental fields of knowledge are opened—is one of theory and methodology, or how Contract & Contagion came to pose the above discussion in the ways that it eventually did. This being the analysis of long-range capitalist dynamics traced through the key concepts of ‘contract’ and ‘contagion,’ and an argument that at stake in these dynamics is not biopolitics (neither the politicisation of life or the (re)vitalism of politics) but oikonomia.

I understand those dynamics as the proliferation of limits and the restoration of foundations of a system that has no necessity other than these intrinsic dynamics. I am not interested in a transhistorical dialectical schema any more than I am in the transcendental theologies of monism —as it happens, both are expressions of the preoccupations of Rationalist philosophers with the mind-body dualism. Something to analyse but not presuppose.

The three obvious theoretical touchstones in C&C are critical race and postcolonial theory, queer and feminist theory and those strands of marxism that range outside both Second International objectvism and Third International subjectivism (not least a class compositional analysis, but I am critical of the mechanical variants of such). Theoretically, C&C is an attempt to push beyond what I see as the various limits in each of these, not least because while it is possible to read these as the respective categories/objects of race, nation, class, gender and sexuality, their distinction as such is based on a false premise. The question ‘How is it possible to put gender, class, sexuality, race and nation together?’ assumes a once-upon-a-time when there was an identity that has since fragmented. I have never experienced these as distinct categories, though I can read them everywhere treated as such. The delineation of discrete sets is explicable in terms of the history of contracts as I note in the remarks on intersectionality, can be discerned in the history of geometry, and can be traced as the history of the boundaries between disciplinary practices and epistemes.

The methodological approach of C&C is influenced by Fernand Braudel’s historiography of the longue durée, Gaston Bachelard’s history and philosophy of science, and by Talcott Parsons’ systems-theoretic approach. All of these are modified in particular ways. I disagree with some more than others, but they nevertheless all contribute something which I think is methodologically important to critical theory, and perhaps even crucial when thinking about radical theoretical practices in the present context.

Long-range historical approaches are important if we are not simply to reiterate dogma and desire. Clearly, the more normative those desires are, the less likely it is that anyone is required to give evidence of them. These are the easy presumptions of a generic reader and neutral writer, one who was apparently born knowing all words, concepts, knowledge. There is no such thing. When claims are made about the ‘decline of the family’ for instance, it is necessary to ask to what extent this is true or whether it articulates a nostalgic desire for something deemed to have been lost. The same holds for any analysis of the shift between Fordism and post-Fordism, of the patently false claims inherent to the very word ‘globalisation,’ understandings of causal and temporal orders, etc. It is a methodology used against a nostalgic, mythic recourse to history, such as the primitivism of Polanyi; and it similarly turned against presumptions of forward progress or linear development. It begins from the premise that all concepts must be historicized and specified, that impermanence is the only unchanging condition of life. This is Lucretius’ influence, which I would say is also the non-Hegelian dimension of Marx’s writings.

While the structural-functionalist approach of Talcott Parsons is a claustrophobic expression of Cold War politics, systems-theory is an excellent lesson in the ways epistemic systems are constructed and, read critically, in how to take them apart. It is also an illustration of how systems of knowledge can be ‘wrong’ but, inasmuch as they are enacted in practices, they attain a material force. Unlike Parsons, I do not think any system is hermetically-sealed. Though it is important to discern the ways in which it is not, even if this is not a question of recognizing a subject. That is, my object is not social movements—I do not think it is the role of critical theory to survey the least powerful nor to prefigure subjects that remain bound to a strictly political understanding of social change. I am more interested in critical theory for movements in the sense that it can point to the limits to movements while—at the same time—tracing the ways in which those limits, the ways in which systems are reorganized, are a response to the challenge movements.

This is why and how C&C tracks the emergence of probabilistic science, adaptive, complex- systems theories, the modeling techniques of fractals, affect and service work, changing technologies of border controls, algorithms, the jurisprudential passage from intention to performance in contract law, human capital theories, and so on. I read all of these as epistemic shifts that it is possible to trace according to the concepts of contract and contagion. Because both of these concepts turn on questions of generation, and specifically, the futurity or entelechy of a system: how capitalism changes while still staying the same.

In other words, long-range history and systems theory are situated within a larger methodological set of questions given by Bachelard’s philosophy and history of science. It was Mary Tiles’ Bachelard: Science and Objectivity that, a very long time ago, gave me access to an entire series of debates among those who wrote in the wake of Bachelard’s insights (Canguilhem, Lacan, Gullaimin, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, etc) outside the dubious packaging of ‘Continental Philosophy’ for an anglophone readership.

But the important point to underline here is Bachelard’s understanding of what a concept is and does. I understand that people get either annoyed or delighted at what they see as the tendency in C&C, or much of my writing, to skip between idioms. But to be clear: for Bachelard, concepts link domains. And, rather than understand history as continuous, for Bachelard crucial significance is situated in the discontinuities as much as it is important to trace continuities. In this, concepts are not nice shiny words or phrases, that can be juxtaposed or serve only as metaphors. They diffuse precise ‘problems’ of knowledge throughout a system. They are the conveyances of epistemes, including epistemic objects, and they involve modes of inference and verification, temporal schema of event, duration and scope. They inform the practices and rules of intellectual work, whether or not that work is credentialed, informalized or vernacular.

Deleuze will grumble that concepts can be folded. This is of course true, to an extent, and certainly seductive. But in a context where research and intellectual work increasingly takes place in cross-disciplinary platforms that involve a large component of funding from, say, mining industries or pharmaceutical companies, or where memes become diffused in digital work and in the medium of the internets, or even given the use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of de- territorialization by the Israeli Defense Force, it seems to me that it is crucial to understand the ways in which concepts continue to link domains and disciplinary practices. Deleuze’s understanding of the fold emerges in a reading of Leibniz’s philosophy, which was also a theology, a mathematics, a geometry and a philosophy. Given all of this, and given the drive to adopt and appropriate the seemingly novel idea, it is important to make these concepts that link domains into vectors of another kind of politics, one informed by a critical theory of systems (and not just systems theory) and a sense of the precise conditions of that systems’ future projection. That is, to not simply be technicians of methods but understand the methodology we work with and are often called to labour for; not only bearers of memes or epistemic objects, but to ascertain (and transform) the epistemological rules or ‘logics’ of methods as we work with and against them. When Marx wrote of the ‘general intellect’ in the Grundrisse, he was talking about the subsumption of knowledge and science by capital. The ‘general intellect’ provides a pool of knowledge and labour through which capital extracts innovation, surplus labour and value. Specifying the conditions of capitalist futurity in this context means elaborating the ways in which concepts link domains and our practices, often ‘behind our backs,’ and seeking ways to make those links otherwise. That is the connection between methodology, theory and concepts in C&C.

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An Introduction to Contract & Contagion

Welcome to the Contract and Contagion forum. Angela was kind enough write up introductory comments to the book and today and tomorrow we will be posting those comments– Part One today, Part Two (on method) tomorrow. I think these introductory comments will help us to frame some of the week’s discussion and, if you haven’t read Contract and Contagion, I hope they inspire you to pick up the book (and join in to our discussion.)



I thought that it might be helpful to unpack Contract & Contagion for this forum by way of two broad questions. They are of course connected. But it is not necessary to draw all the connections here all at once so as to discuss particular aspects.

Part one:

The first is: What would a critical or radical politics around contracts involve? And what is it that a critical theory of contracts would have to bring to this, such that it contributes not to the restoration of the limits (including those racialised, gendered, classed and national limits that obtain in the contractual itself) but to what I would call the long historical game of the contractual? Inasmuch as contracts, whether tacit or explicit, are future-oriented machines for allocating risk, what are the principles through which a tactical engagement with contracts could involve deliberately setting about to shift the distribution of risks, uncertainty, precariousness? This, then, is not a detached analysis of contracts but one that begins from questions about power, the impositions of scarcity and distributions of abundance, and—not least—a theoretical proposition that while identity, forms of attachment and relation are immersed in histories, contracts are a crucial terrain of conflict because they involve the conditions of relation in the future.

I do not really understand so-called critical definitions of liberalism as an ideological or political choice that exists outside the force of law and money, both politics and economics. Contracts, rights and so on are not a matter of choice. Money is not a matter of choice. It too is a contract. To suggest otherwise is to imply that the material conditions of making a choice (whether to enter into contracts or not) are present, in place for everyone in the same ways. In any event, even the most materialist expression of liberal political philosophy (such as that of Machiavelli) will always posit that choices are decisions made under uncertain circumstances. So, the question remains: what or who is ‘sacrificed’ in the process of the foundation (and refoundation) of contracts, whether they be wage or social contracts, or those of debt and so on? (It might be noted that the Lucretian riposte to Machiavelli’s insistence on the fatal necessity—and I would say, his enjoyment—of a recurrent sacrificial, economic and indeed gendered violence that re- founds the political contract is discussed in the preamble.)

Moreover, in these questions of the distribution of risk and uncertainty, contingency and necessity, the question of contagion almost invariably plays out as questions of ‘moral hazard,’ ‘financial contagion,’ and so on. There are versions of contagion that are not so distinctly linked to the simultaneously legal, moral and economic language of contracts. But they are often in play as moral panics about epidemics, loose ties, wayward or excessive circulation—as some version of attempts to reinstate the ‘natural’ genealogical orders of the transmission of property and properties. Genealogy is always inscribed in the language of contracts—as is particularly apparent in the passage of common law across frontier spaces.

In any event, what I mean by the long historical game of the contractual involves making a very clear distinction between the conservative critique of capitalism (and for that matter, of the transactional, as in conservative panics about sex work as the ‘commodification’ of sex, or as with the veneration of the ‘gift economy’) and the ways in which it is possible to understand anti- capitalism as the politics and economics (the infrastructure) of the centuries-long struggle to abolish slavery. It is a view of the history of capitalism that takes its cue not from a labour movement premised on the wage contract as system of commensurability and representation (as in the ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’) but from questions about the interior and exterior boundaries of the wage contract itself. In other words: surplus value. The historical persistence of slavery in wage slavery and servitude. This emphasizes, among other things, the ways in which Marx understood the specificity of capitalism—the very existence of capital both in its abstraction and as a social dynamic—as the necessary foundation of Aristotelian logic (syllogistic reasoning) on the naturalization of slavery.

But I pursue this insight into the taxonomic machinery of value to go beyond Marx’s own attachments to a metaphysical definition of labour. His definition and analysis of labour rarely moves beyond the boundaries of the wage contract. So, rather than speak of labour in mythical, Platonic or substantialist terms, as “form-giving fire” or god-like creation, I think it is important to talk about contracts (and contagion) instead, and from the perspective of, ‘below-the-line’ labour and surplus value. Ultimately this is a question about the abolition of labour (and capital) that is not premised on the mystification of either labour or capital.

This is why it was important to underscore how the operaisti concept of the ‘social wage’ is in fact the emergence of the accounting system of the Fordist ‘family wage’; how the New Household Economics of the Chicago School Economists is a linked question about human capital, service work and unpaid domestic labour; and to make the connections between concepts of ‘the common,’ English jurisprudence and the joint-stock company. The same goes for questions about labour and measure—at the centre of this is a question about the expansion and limits of the contractual, that links together issues of service work, automation, interaction and affect. This is also, ultimately, why I wanted to insist that the law of value is the law of the household, of the combination of oikos and nomos. Oikonomia as the foundational condition of capitalism and the abstract circuits of capital.

In practical terms, then, a critical politics around contracts involves a critique of the ways in which contracts generate identities as if they are its pre-existing (authentic) premises, and it insists on an irreconcilable divergence from strategies around the contractual that seek to reinstate (or re-naturalise) the distribution of risks and uncertainty according the genealogical— ie., oikonomic—lines of gender, race, sex, nation and class. It is never a question of inclusion or exclusion, since both occur at the same time. This is as true of ‘negotiations’ around wage contracts as it is of broader conflicts around, say, the ‘social contract.’ It is however also a question about how the unavoidable and therefore cramped, tactical engagement with the world of contracts might not foreclose, and instead encourage, the development of a relationality—a politics and economics of the in-between—that can break with the limits of the contractual. Not reform or revolution, in other words, but here and now considerations of a post-welfare state, post-wage contract, post-citizenship infrastructure. For all the whining from some quarters about the absence of demands, ‘unity’ or ‘organization’ in the previous decades of protests and in the movements, the very materiality of movements has opened up the experimental field of precisely these questions.

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