The General Election on May 7th is occurring against a backdrop of relentless austerity, food poverty, tax evasion and scapegoating of groups without access to the mainstream media that marginalizes them.
Is there an alternative to this politics of despair, and if so, is collective activism the answer? Is Essex man Russell Brand right when he tells us that the system is broken and what we accept as ‘common sense’ has been imposed on us? On one hand, events in Greece and Spain show that collective responses to inequality are working. On the other hand, there is the anti-European, anti-immigration stance of populists like UKIP and Le Front National in France, whose appeal seems to resonate with the mythologized ‘man in the street’.
This pre-election CCT special event explores alternative ways of thinking critically about our everyday political lives and considers the effectiveness of collective activism. We’ll discuss what can be done at the local level to make a difference and what kind of differences ‘we’ want by first thinking about who ‘we’ are – a collective political force or fragmented individual consumers?
We ask you to contemplate the idea of the common ground and critically explore related concepts like neoliberalism, individuality, crowds, publics, multiplicities, collectivity, and of course, democracy.
Introduction by Andrew Branch
Tony D. Sampson (author of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks): Crowds, Publics and Desire.
Giles Tofield (Director of The Cultural Engine): Finding Common Ground – Southend.
Q&A Chaired by Andrew Branch followed by break for drinks
Special guest speaker Professor Jeremy Gilbert (author of Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in the Age of Individualism): The Common Ground
Text based on a talk given at the first Club Critical Theory night at the Railway Hotel in Southend, Essex, UK on April 17th 2014. Corrections may still be needed.
Applying Deleuze to Southend in the context a Club Critical Theory discussion is a doubly difficult task. To begin with Deleuze introduces a new vocabulary that sits atop of an already complex layer of philosophical debate. We will need to grapple with complexity theory and a strange incorporeal materialism. Then there are personal reasons that make this task problematic relating to my own situation here as a Southender. Deleuze, for me, represents an escape from certain aspects of my early working life in Southend at the local college and particularly my time spent in what we referred to then as the School of Media and Fascism. Deleuze was part of my escape plan from this horror, so returning to Southend with him in mind presents all kinds of problems, but let’s put those aside for a moment and see where Deleuze in Southend takes us.
The point of this introduction to Deleuze is to apply some critical distance between our material and expressive experiences of Southend. So let’s begin by saying what I think Deleuze is not. He is not postmodern or poststructuralist. Such generalities are, as I will try to explain, not acceptable in Deleuzian ontology. With regard to the latter, language or linguistic categories, while not discounted, they are not the major concern. I also do not see Deleuze’s post-Marxism as necessarily antithetical to the Left or indeed Marx. He was supposedly planning a book on the latter before he died. Shame we missed that one! What attracted me to Deleuze was his attempt to rally against all kinds of totality, fascism and authoritarian regimes. But there are many Deleuzes. His project is vast. What I’ll focus on here are some aspects of Difference and Repetition which seem to me to map out the trajectory of his philosophical project born out of the frustrations of 1968 and extending into his work with Guattari – a time marked by a unrequited desire for revolution. A time that instigated a need to rethink what revolution really means.
Simply put, we need to overcome an old philosophical problem; that is to say, the problem of the One and the many. This is a mereological problem – meaning the study of the relation between parts and wholes and an ongoing debate concerning what constitutes an emergent whole. Before applying this to Southend directly I want to draw a little on crowd theory to illustrate what I mean by mereology. The origins of social theory are rooted in a question concerning what constitutes individuals and crowds. That is, what happens to an individual when she becomes part of a crowd? In the late 1800s Gustave Le Bon thought that once the socially conscious individual became part of a crowd she was incorporated into a stupid and mostly unconscious collectivity. A great influence on Freud’s group psychology and 1930s fascism, Le Bon applied a kind of emergence theory that assumes that the whole has properties independent of the parts that compose it.
We can illustrate Le Bon’s claim by visiting Roots Hall Football ground every week.
Le Bon’s football crowd is an emergence of a kind of collective intelligence in reverse in which smart individuality dissipates into the unruly wholeness of the crowd. We can also see this in terms of the discourses of local policy makers when they refer to the Southend community as a whole. The properties of the emergent whole are assumed to become superveniant – meaning that the interaction between parts produces a whole that has its own properties. It is this immutable wholeness that has a downward causal power over the parts from which it has emerged. This is the kind of sociology that claims that we are the product of the society we are born into, i.e. a member of a certain class.
What Deleuze does is replace the One and the many with the multiplicity. We need to draw here on a little bit of complexity theory, but before that Deleuze and Guattari set out a really nice case against superveniant wholes in their book Anti Oedipus. In short, all things become parts. Wholes are just bigger parts. Instead of the One, we encounter populations of parts. The multiplicity becomes the organizing principle in a complex relationality between parts, which we will call here assemblages. Unlike the timelessness (synchronic) of emergent superveniant wholes, we find that assemblages are exposed to historical (diachronic) processes. A population of parts becomes a territorialization: a territory held together by relationality, but exposed to deterritorializations and reterritorializations. Assemblages also have material and expressive parts. For instance, material parts might be the buildings we surround ourselves with or without the financial capital we require to build them. Expressive parts might refer to the availability of cultural capital (knowledge e.g.) or the flow of conversations, routines, rituals, habits and discourses that co-determine the social spaces we inhabit.
The question therefore moves away from simply locating the properties of the emergent whole to the question of what brings assemblages together. What are the interactions that give life to a novel territory? We also need to take into account how interactions between parts and the wider environment: the way in which the football crowd interacts with the materiality of the stadium or the weather or the expressive voices and gestures of the away supporters.
It is nonetheless crucial that the multiplicity is not mistaken for a master process that determines the territory – the crowd e.g. We need to see this rendering of a crowd as what the Deleuzian Manuel Delanda refers to as a space of possibilities. This is a brand of Deleuze that draws heavily on complexity theory. Herein the properties of the crowd have identities that are not fixed or essential. The crowd has capacities that can affect and be affected. The interaction between home and away supporters, e.g. The crowd also has tendencies that function as pattern changers. Say Southend United actually manage promotion this season, and that’s of course more virtual than actual at this point, but should it happen then the crowd will swell in number perhaps requiring a new stadium. There is also the complexity of universal singularities to follow, which, in simple terms, provides the trajectories or lines of flight that the crowd follow. Continuing with the football theme this line of flight can be guided by fixtures, but again the design of the stadium the crowd encounters is important here, since to a great extent it provides the crowd with its contours and flows, and plays a role in its emergence. Finally, singularities are drawn to basins of attraction. Again, the shape of the crowd becomes a territory because of the material, expressive and environmental factors it is coupled to.
We can draw on another example: a building. Take Carby House and Heath House in Victoria Avenue. The so-called Gateway to Southend!
As spaces of possibility buildings have properties. They are big or small, predominantly this colour or that colour. They generally have windows. These windows also have capacities. They are windows that can be opened or smashed. But importantly, they need someone to open or smash them. Without this interaction taking place the capacity remains virtual rather than actual. It is a double event in this sense. There are tendencies too. Buildings can decay over time for all kinds of reasons; weather, lack of maintenance, vandalism etc. Investment, or a lack of it, can act as a basin of attraction which singularities are drawn to forming areas of regeneration or decay. Furthermore, decay can lead to other buildings decaying. This last point is very important to my work in assemblage theory or what I call contagion theory. Urban spaces can emerge as contagious material assemblages converging with expressive social epidemiologies. What we might call crime waves, for example, can begin with very small interactions between parts. These are events, like one solitary broken window, that can lead to further events, such as more windows being smashed. This leads to break-ins, fire, perhaps even a death.
What I have tried to do in preparation for this talk is grasp Southend as an assemblage. The questions we could ask about these spaces need to account for historical processes, the material and expressive parts, the spaces of possibility, the interactions between parts and environments, the properties, capacities, tendencies, singularities, and basins of attraction. More than that, we also need to ask what kinds of assemblage we can make from these relations. What novel critical networks, new artworks and performances can interact with existing parts? Our venue, the Railway Hotel is in many ways one such place. It was after all known locally as the BNP pub. The BNP would, I’m told, meet here, in this room. The landlord has transformed this building. He is a true Deleuzian. Hopefully Club Critical Theory can continue to provide an expression to this kind of positive change in Southend.
With photographer Iry Hor I have started to look at some of the urban assemblages that surround us. These include, on one hand, the lines of flight of regeneration; most notably, the Forum, the so-called Lego Building and the new college and university campuses. This is regeneration we can understand in part as financial territorialization. Territories formed around access to vast amounts of capital resources; for example, £54 million in 2004 for the new college campus, £14 million from the government and £9 million from EEDA for the new University of Essex building. In the case of the Forum there has been £27million invested by Southend Council, the University of Essex and South Essex College.
Love them or loathe them these new shiny buildings have the capacity to affect and be affected. I found this nice quote about the Forum in the local paper from an OAP resident living in Sunningdale Court sheltered housing in nearby Gordon Place.
“I love it. When I go out, I have to pass the building and I have this great big smile on my face as I do. I’m just so happy.”
But this area in Southend is not an indelible whole. Its access to resources is never permanent. With £8.6million cuts to government funding to the college in the next few years many of the expressive internal parts of this shiny new building will begin to dissipate. Indeed, the external interactions between the new campuses and the adjacent derelict buildings are a constant reminder of the tendencies of decay that can affect all buildings that fall into financial decline.
Again, things are never whole. Indeed, on the other hand, there is the trajectory of urban decay in Victoria Avenue, including Carby House, Heath House and the old college building in Canarvon Road. A report on the planning application for the new campuses in 2003 made it clear that “the disposal of the existing campus buildings is an important part of the delivery process for the new campus.”
It seems strange to me that these building are owned by developers. What kind of perverse development is this? To try to find out I traced back the various interactions between these so-called developers and Southend Council as reported in the local papers. These interactions are perhaps best summarized by Anna Waite, the former Tory Southend councillor responsible for planning in 2008 who said then: “I wish I knew what was happening. I haven’t heard anything from the developers for months.” Is this evidence enough for the need for public intervention into private property?
Perhaps Victoria Avenue is an example of deterritorialization? Well, things are not that simple in Deleuze’s onology because parts are at their most creative when they are deterritorialized. Carby House and Heath House are not only the rotting Gateway to Southend. They are the central hub of a contagion of decay.
Heath House closed when the remaining 300 workers were made redundant in 2000. Along with Carby House it has, in the past 14 years, become a mesmerizing example of a transformative decomposition of material parts brought about by its open interaction with the environment and a withdrawal of access to resources. But Carby House and Heath House are perhaps in the process of expressive and material reterritorialization. They are certainly a defiant example of what affordable housing means in times of austerity in Southend-on-Sea. They have become a home to the homeless.
A few notes
The School of Media and Fascism is attributed to Jairo Lugo currently at University of Sheffield.
Gustave Le Bon’s contribution to Crowd Theory is The Crowd.
Thrilled to announce that we have the sound recordist, artist, musician Stuart Bowditch lined up for the first Club Critical Theory event on Thursday 17th April.
The event is free and starts at 9pm upstairs at the excellent Railway Hotel!
The discussion (making sense of place: creating a critical space for southend-on-sea) will be chaired by Giles Tofield and features talks on Deleuze, Contagion & the New Brighton (Tony D Sampson, UEL) and Bourdieu, Habit and Social Space
(Andrew Branch, UEL).