On Art and Populism: The Next Universal – An Interview with Laboria Cuboniks
July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
11/12 2015 With the publication of their Xenofeminist manifesto this spring, the anonymous feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks sets the terms for a massively ambitious project. Their goal is to synthesize a new universalism, one that overrides the still-dominant paradigm that derives from the western white-male. Their collectively-authored text, subtitled A Politics for Alienation, is just a first step in a multi-faceted critique that will draw from the various strands of their respective disciplines. While building on the accomplishments of identity-based politics of the last century, the collective argue that the historical moment for this type of analysis has passed. Before reading the manifesto, the urgency of Laboria Cubonik’s program was not clear to me, but it now seems obvious. I look forward to the book they are now working to produce. We spoke through the medium of Google Docs over the past couple of weeks.
I am always interested in origin stories. I realize this approach is a bit contrary to what I understand the Laboria Cuboniks enterprise to be, but…where did you guys meet?
LC: We met up at the Navigation as Emancipation summer school during the summer in 2014 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in Berlin. It was organised by Armen Avanessian, Peter Wolfendale and Reza Negarestani. It was basically a two-week program for those interested in pursuing what has been deemed “neo-rationalist” philosophy. (The term “neo-rationalist” sounds a bit harsh, but it basically concerns new understandings of reason and its function for an age of complexity). What bonded us was the fact that many of us had experienced animosity for avowing things like reason, science, technology and/or mathematics — having been accused of “bowing to the patriarchy” for working with and alongside such perspectives, and we all felt a collective need to denaturalize such disciplines from a de jure masculine grip — that the white-male dominated histories of those disciplines does not mean that their future is bound to the same fate.
That experience became your identity then. So how does Laboria Cuboniks now speak in public? On the web only or also IRL?
LC: Our name is actually an anagram of the Nicolas Bourbaki group of mathematicians from the 20th Century, who advocated for abstract and generic approaches to the field — so there is some definite kinship with their pursuits. We’re (currently) six people from different disciplines spread out across three continents right now. But our identity is not so important. More important for us is to begin developing conceptual tools under the umbrella of xenofeminism — a feminism arguing for abstraction, cognitive augmentation in the face of complexity, and a politics able to think an intersectional or “relative” universalism as a gluing operation after decades of identity politics that emphasize particularisms.
So much to unpack here! The Xenofeminism Manifesto gives a thorough articulation of these ideas. I guess what I am trying to do is first look at the context through which you are speaking as a way to articulate those ideas but in a different way. I understand the Laboria Cuboniks identity is not so important, but I am interested in the way it allows you to speak as one voice. Xeno means “other” (as in xenophobia) so this other voice you are adopting is one made possible by internet, is that correct?
LC: There’s no doubt that without the internet we couldn’t work together, being as spread out as we are (although time zones are a problem — just ask our Australian member who joins in video chats at ungodly hours!) This “other” — or “alien” voice as we’d prefer — that came through the manifesto was a pretty arduous process. But it was also quite interesting to work between horizontal and vertical modes of collaboration, moving between diffuse and top-down editorial authoring. The manifesto for us is a foundational document implicitly mapping out a program of work. It needed a unified voice to articulate these perspectives in a cohesive way. That said, we’ll continually rework our formal approach with each project. The book we’re developing, for example, will take on another strategy altogether as a “forking” of the manifesto. We’ll each prepare contributions in our various areas of competence, elaborating critical points that have been raised since the release of the text, potentially with other authors included as well. It will be a curious exercise. On some issues there isn’t a consensus amongst us, so those tensions will be more visible and hopefully help demonstrate a commitment to “impurity” we believe is necessary to address anything on the level of the social. One cannot get very profound in the manifesto form, so we’re very conscious of the fact that many passages should in fact be proper essays in their own right. We want to start pushing the concepts as tools for reappropriation, similar to the function of something like Git-Hub where coders can build off existing projects, orienting or augmenting them in new directions.
I think these tensions are evident on the level of form, in the sheer density of the text. Its got forward propulsion at the cost of elaboration on the many different avenues of inquiry it proposes. Forking seems like the necessary next step. At the same time, the format of the manifesto and the Laboria Cuboniks identity are what make it possible to articulate such an encompassing set of concerns. Again, in the interest of getting you to spell things out, what is the unifying factor here? To quote from the Xenofeminist Manifesto, does “embracing alienation” as a position and “the synthetic potential of a groundless universalism” properly express it?
LC: You’ve basically nailed it — in the (positively) generic sense. What unites us are several fundamental commitments: the first being an affirmation of alienation as a necessary, cognitive and pragmatic “state” to be mobilised for any substantial change to take place at the scale of the normative. The perspectives that arise from “alien” encounters could mitigate against the way the familiar obstructs the effects of new knowledge. Alienation can never be a “total” thing — it expresses a relation between things/people/activities — so any talk that we are “totally alienated” is rubbish. Such a statement disavows this definitive relationality! One of our main issues is the ossification of norms as facts — when plastic norms become naturalised as a truth of biology, physiology, ecology — or even certain economic orders. In order to disentangle the two, we require a state of “alienation” from those inhibiting normative modes, to construct new ones that operate as a collective horizon for navigating the desire of what we do want as a social body. This generative alienation is a means for thinking through the social, technological, economic, ethical and sexual ramifications of new knowledge(s) — rather than falling trap of alternativeless naturalization. We embrace the power of plastic norms as a counter-hegemonic project, provided they are seized as plastic — that is, subject to re-invention. We can’t simply advocate for a politics celebrating the margin anymore, we require a thinking and pragmatics at a scale of the so-called “total” (and therefore naturalized) global scale of the neo-liberal modus operandi. This scale, in our view, can only be navigated and put to other functions when we can properly think the planetary complexity of 21st Century life — a scale that requires thinking from the nano-second to the geological, which is surely an alien proposition given unaided human phenomenology or intellection.
Can you expand on how you are using the term “plastic” — is this connected to “the synthetic potential of a groundless universalism”? I still need that notion clarified.
LC: Definitely. What we discuss as “plastic” most certainly has to do with how a universalism for the 21st century needs to function. What taints the notion of universalism is (quite rightly) it’s Modernist legacy, where we have seen the deployment of “universalism” as: a) a schematic top-down plan, where every difference is subsumed into its over-arching form; and b) as a particularity that is falsely inflated as a universal model — a specifically white Euro-Male “point” or perspective is projected as a dominant mode of orientation globally. On the latter point, we suggest this is no universalism at all. It’s a bloated, disproportionate particularity that has delivered to us global structures of colonialism and capitalism. This is an illogical universalism, a falsely conceived and implemented abuse of the term that does not live up to the potential of its name.
As an important and useful response to this violent (false) universalism, we have seen the development of fields like post-colonial theory, identity politics, queer theory and strands of feminism that highlight marginalized perspectives and voices lost to Modernity’s “inflationary” modes of operation. Addressing critical issues like the “site” or context “from where one speaks” has been a collective effort to emphasize the importance of particularities and give necessary attention to unheard voices and unmapped positions (in art, we saw these tendencies manifest in site specific practices, for example). After decades of such theorizing, though, this almost exclusive focus on particularities has lost sight of the global neoliberal hegemony we are all forced to live by. Calling for a reworking of the concept “universal” should not be taken as a side-swipe against those invaluable theoretical contributions mentioned earlier. It is to face up to their inherent limits in the face of the hegemonic core that has only increased in dominance, and whose scale is gargantuan. It would be a failure to not properly acknowledge those limits and overestimate the usefulness of certain theoretical frameworks, just as Levi Bryant has pointed out how Lacanian psychoanalysis does not offer sufficient tools to adequately examine something like climate change, for example.
Our project is a counter-hegemonic one, which definitively means taking on issues of scale (not only politics understood in its’ local, on-the-ground, phenomenological form) and reformatting what we mean by “universalism”. This is similar to when Rosi Braidotti calls for a feminism unsatisfied by the margins that instead seeks to occupy the centre. To us this signifies a feminism willing to construct what that centre — a normative proposition — could be. This new universalism still requires much thought, to go against the “false” variant we have already been subject to historically. For this universal to live up to its name means not to do away with the important work that’s been done on particularisms, but instead turn our focus to the engineering of a kind of abstract “glue”, in order to plot out coherent relations between particularities — or “solidarities”, in a way. Part of our approach to this concept of universalism is drawn from mathematics, wherein Fernando Zalamea (calling on the work of Alexander Grothendieck) has written about “relative universals” and has begun working with these ideas within a social framework. Now clearly, we are not suggesting an achievement in mathematics can be readily mapped on to the social. But what we can make use of is a functional concept of a bottom-up universal — including the ability to move back and forth between local and global scales. Because this universal is an implicit (bottom-up) and not explicit (top-down) variant, its field of reference is not fixed in stone, but is constituted by the relations it constructs. While we have much more thinking to do on this topic, one thing is clear — if we are going to gain any sort of political and cognitive traction against the almost total subsumption of life to neo-liberalism, we require strategies at a proportionate scale, able to face up to our complex plight — an urgent plight yielding increasingly to (climatic, social, and economic) injustice. It is not sufficient to be against our situation in the negative, but rather to focus our thought towards the affirmative construction of a post-catastrophic world we want.
The position you have mapped out is clear and compelling, and it provides useful insight into a global situation that might otherwise be experienced as an impasse. I am curious to know more about the “conceptual tools” you are planning to develop under the umbrella of xenofeminism. Can you say more about this next step in the project?
The next steps will more distinctly reflect our poly-disciplinary backgrounds — each member delving into the ramifications the manifesto has had upon our thinking since its release (including the myriad of external reactions that it generated — both positive and negative). Having each been infected by alien fields of knowledge in the process of intensively working together, our imminent horizon will be to integrate this conceptual contagion to our respective fields of practice.
This is one of ten posts made to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).