30 08 08

Recomposition and Movement

Translated by Aileen Derieg

Gerald Raunig

“[…] an abstract machine of mutation, which operates by decoding and deterritorialization. It is what draws the lines of flight: it steers the quantum flows, assures the connection-creation of flows, and emits new quanta. It itself is in a state of flight, and erects war machines on its lines.”
(Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)

Vitruvius, Roman architect, himself a builder and theorist of war machines under Caesar and Augustus, wrote in the first century BC about the machine: machina est continens e materia coniunctio maximas ad onerum motus habens virtutes, the machine is a coherent concatenation of material components and has the greatest virtues in moving heavy things. Two definitive conceptual components of the machine are already found here, composition and movement, which later prevail in the lexica and specialized books of the 18th century in the definition of the term machine. Christian Wolff, master of mechanical philosophy, defines the conceptual components of the machine in his German Metaphysics from 1719 as follows: “A machine is a compound work, whose movements are grounded in the type of composition.” compositio and motus are the two decisive and mutually interrelated components of the machine, for Wolff both at the micro level of the body and at the macro level of the world as machine, which is in turn composed of machines. Let us overlook, for the moment, the problematic aspect of the totalization of the world that occurs here and concentrate on the quality of the two components and their relationship.

Raising the question of the mode of composition and its connection to movement means to me to focus on the specific social composition and recomposition of social movements. Contrary to every empirical definition of “class situations”, I want to describe social composition explicitly not as a state, but as a movement. In this way, I am ultimately aiming for a specific form of composition that flees, avoids, betrays the concepts not only of the state apparatus, but also of the community. Initially this means taking up a motif here again that is found in a continuity of the terms for the composition: the machine – and this is the conventional modern notion, also Wolff’s – as compositio, as a (cunning, artificial) composition of parts that do not necessarily belong together, but at the same time also the machine according to Vitruvius’ definition from antiquity as continens e materia coniunctio, in other words as continuum and concatenation, as an assemblage, in which the parts are imagined as neither a priori isolated from one another, nor robbed of their singularity in a unit. What both notions suggest in our context is a conceptualization as a vessel, which is not striated towards the inside, which is open to the outside and designed for communication. The communication of the machines and machine components, of singularities, of monads thus does not appear guaranteed by God as with Leibniz or by any other universal, but rather as a concatenation of singularities, as a profoundly polyphonous, even a-harmonious com-position without a composer.

A social composition of this kind sets itself against the state apparatus as a striating container, as well as against concepts of the community as a natural body and unit closing itself off to the outside through identity and totality. These two major patterns of classification are what the machine as a social movement separates itself from: from the state and from the community.

The search is thus for a formless form of the political concatenation of singularities, which are not structuralized in the form of the state apparatus and its components of stratifying and dividing space, but at the same time one that does not close itself off in the large, all-amalgamating inclusion of the community. The machine sets itself against the “artificial” state form and the striating of its interior, hence also against the absolutist metaphor of the “state machine”, and against the “natural” form of communities – and this apparent dualism of “artificial” and “natural” can only be named here in quotation marks, standing for two different modes of forming and classifying: the mode of the “artificial” striation and the mode of the “natural” enclosure and totalization of an interior posited as absolute. This second figure constructed by naturalization and incorporation applies not only to the historical cases of early Christian communities [Urgemeinschaft] or fascist people’s communities [Volksgemeinschaft], and even the critique of contemporary right-wing communitarianism is insufficient here. It is to be feared that behind even the high-minded discourses of the affronted (Jean-Luc Nancy: La communauté affrontée), unavowable (Maurice Blanchot: La communauté inavouable), inoperative (Jean-Luc Nancy: La communauté désoeuvrée), or coming (Giorgio Agamben: La comunità che viene) community there lies a process of identification, a desire for collective identity without cracks, without rupture and without an outside. In these readings of community, it is possible to distinguish new forms of machinic enslavement beyond the old problems of communitarianisms and in addition to the social subjection of the subjects by the state apparatus. Here, in service to the communal unity, control and self-control interweave as modes of subjectivation and form a new dispositive.

Counter to this interlocking of government and self-government, of social subjection and machinic enslavement, and in order to deepen the anti-state and anti-communitarian quality of the machinic concatenation, I want to take a slight detour to the early Jacques Tati. In film criticism Tati’s works are frequently misunderstood as civilization-critical complaints against the demands of modernity. Especially Tati’s first feature film La jour de fête has been (falsely) interpreted this way, due to its idyllic framework (and its ludicrous synchronizations). In the sequence of L’ecole des facteurs (1947) and La jour de fête (1949), in which almost all the scenes from the “School for Postmen” were included, however, it is evident that Tati’s first feature film can be seen as anything but a hymn to a return to village life in the country. The sketch series L’ecole des facteurs, barely fifteen minutes long, is more than a preliminary study; the small film clearly shows the point that Tati is aiming for. As a pure parody of the military disciplining of postmen and the striation and rationalization not only of their working day, but also of every detail of movement in the fordist framework of labor, the “School for Postmen” shines with mini-attractions that thwart this regime. These extremely physical tricks especially on bicycles, which are typical for Tati, follow one another in quick succession in L’ecole des facteurs; in La jour de fête they are slightly hidden by the many details of village life and the seemingly contemplative frame of the plot.

The first feature film that Tati wrote and directed himself begins and ends as a bourgeois idyll, but it develops its strengths as a burlesque that seems from today’s perspective less anti-modern/anti-fordist, but more proto-postfordist. During a fair the carnies show a newsreel about the most recent methods for modernizing the postal service in the United States. Sorting machines, air mail and post helicopters provide the optimum realization of the Taylorist motto “time is money”. With images of daring motorcycle stunts mixed in, the American mailmen prove themselves pioneers of modernity. The country postman François, played by Jacques Tati himself, sees these images and is captivated by the new spirit of the times. From this point on, his motto is “rapidité – speed!”, and he becomes obsessed with modernizing his simple job. La jour de fête becomes quite prophetic in the scenes in which François, inspired by the abstract machine of the newsreel film, breaks through the peacefulness of his village community and makes the division of labor of the postal state apparatus implode. On the same evening Tati makes his protagonist (in other words himself), intoxicated by the celebration, by alcohol and by the incipient effect of the images that showed the possibilities of a modern postal system, melt into a machine in incredible tricks with his bicycle. The next day he mutates into “Monsieur Postman”, while the motto “rapidité!” becomes an anticipation of postfordist modes of production. François rides faster and faster with increasing virtuosity, emulating the figures of the American motorcycle stunts with his bicycle, riding it through fire, confusing the order of traffic, and leads the field in a spurt in a bicycle race. Finally, his bicycle rolls by itself, escaping from the fordist forced community and waits, casually leaning against the wall of a pub, for its owner chasing after it. It is a motif that recalls the Third Policeman, where bicycles also like to run away, if they are not tied up, bound or locked up …

Finally Monsieur Postman packs up all the necessary utensils in the post office to become post himself. He flees not only the context of the village community and the rigid order of the post, but his frenzied flight from the community and the state apparatus is, at the same time, an invention: the invention of a new office in motion. Taking the constant acceleration of movement and work to an extreme, the bicycle acrobat attaches himself to an open truck, spreads out letters, stamps, seals on its open plank in the back and opens his mobile bicycle post office. As a self-entrepreneur he becomes the post himself – similar, in a way, to the monomaniac production machine Tati, battling against the extreme functionalization of the genre of film. Towards the end, François, intoxicated with speed, lands in the river with his bicycle and is saved by the bent old woman meandering through the whole film with her goat as an allegory of rural life. She brings Francois to safety in farm work, yet the idyllic conclusion is deceptive: in the final shot a small boy wearing a postman uniform runs after the traveling fair wagon, the rapidité virus spreads throughout the world. Thirty years later, all of Europe is infected.

Monsieur Postman lives a possible form of resistance: no return to community aids against the new forms of atomizing individualization, as the dichotomy of individual and community is altogether irrelevant in this dispositive. In contrast, Jacques Tati proposes an offensive strategy of accelerated singularization. Yet what are the machines, in which these singularities could become concatenated instead of becoming stuck in the identitary containers of the community and striated by the state apparatuses? What is the nature of the new, unbounded tie that is actualized not as a homogenizing coherence, but rather as a multiple concatenation, “tied together by the lack of a tie”?

Karl Marx approaches this question in his early text on the Poverty of Philosophy by describing the social composition as a militant process of constituting: “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” It is not a coincidence that Marx wrote these clear words about the class emerging in struggles, which were later to be instrumentalized as fuel for legitimizing the party as the all-controlling state apparatus, in his response to Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty. The question of composition and organization remained a matter of contention between communist and anarchist camps over the course of centuries. For its part, the Marxist-Leninist literature quickly reduced the struggle and the process of constituting a “class for itself” to the opposition of the “class itself” and the “class for itself”. A larger social group, parts of which live under the same or similar social and economic conditions, describes in this reading a “class itself”. However, the empirical objectification of this group regards individuals as being unconscious of the common tie.

With Marx there are two figures that do not even correspond to the unconscious status of the “class itself”, and these figures have several things in common with the current precariat, both with the construct of the “detached precariat” described earlier, and with a possible precarious potency, which we will come back to later. The classical example for the state of separation in its extreme form, which cannot even be regarded as a “class itself”, thus also for the impossibility of intervening action and joint struggle, is that of the French small-holding peasants. Marx wrote in 1852 in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants.”

The small holding is the paradigm of isolation. In the situation of spatial separation, the peasants achieve an exchange with nature, but not an “intercourse with society”. The concept of intercourse [Verkehr], which Marx also shared with his individual-anarchist adversary at the time, Max Stirner, here means something more than a common empirical class foundation. The arbitrary addition of similar units, in Marx’s image the many potatoes in a potato sack, does not result in a union, a political organization. On the contrary, under the radical populist government of the “second Napoleon” Louis Bonaparte, the small-holding peasants are condemned to isolation and separation, to the impossibility of intercourse and – which Marx explicitly emphasizes – to the incapability of their own representation. Their mode of existence and production, which is based on a radical division of space and the isolation of the bodies, makes every practice of exchange, of intercourse, impossible. From the perspective of the specific Marxist-Leninist jargon, it is precisely the small-holding peasants’ absence of relations and communication, their extreme isolation that lacks the precondition for becoming a “class for itself”. The small-holding peasants are not even a “class itself”, cannot become conscious of their common situation and develop general strategies going beyond local confrontations. They lack the potentiality of the “class itself”, the potentiality of people whose economic conditions identify them as a class, but who have not yet realized what they have in common, not yet founded an organization, because of their living conditions.

Yet Marx also has another figure of the unorganizable outside: the lumpen proletariat. Here it seems that everywhere that Marx’ concept of the proletariat has been fixed in an identitarian logic, its outside, the lumpen proletariat, and its sharp separateness from all that organizes, through a positivist and moralizing description has also been fixed. The problematic aspects of this kind of fixation can be seen on the one hand in the notions of identitarian logic in scientific Marxism, which identify and classify a clearly distinct group of people as the proletariat, and on the other hand in the canonized figure of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From this perspective the lumpen proletariat becomes a combination of the last remains of a pre-industrial era and a contemporary, but transient appearance of the industrialized city: “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème […].”Whereas the small-holding peasants were compelled to remain in their situation of a non-class due to their empirical situation, in the “Eighteenth Brumaire” Marx moralizes the lumpen proletariat as the “scum, offal, refuse of all classes”. And the constant, the connection and presumed representation of both sectors of the population construed as the absolute outside, which cannot or will not organize themselves, paradoxically proves to be the head of the state: Louis Bonaparte is and constitutes himself as the head of the lumpen proletariat and the small-holding peasants.

Somewhat surprisingly, in addition to the aforementioned categories of work-shy counter-revolutionary subjects (as the historical analogon of the “disassociated precariat”) in the “Class Struggles in France”, Marx also counts the financial aristocracy (perhaps as the analogon of the “digital boheme”) as belonging to the lumpen proletariat: “The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpen proletariat on the heights of bourgeois society.” In other words, with this heterogenization of the lumpen proletariat there is already an image of the outside permeating society, which cannot be equated with a “lower class”. Marx’ complaint of the unproductivity of this diffuse lumpen proletariat can be seen as an early form of the construction of the disassociated precariat, as an imputation of intentional self-exclusion, self-elimination and self-marginalization; and certainly the combination of the small-holding peasants excluded from intercourse and the lumpen proletariat unwilling to organize does not initially shed much light on the question of social recomposition. Here, however, one could also recognize the possibility conditions of the precariat as an offensive figure of concatenation, as an expansive successor to a diffuse lumpen proletariat on the basis of the general allotment of work and life.

In the classical Marxist-Leninist schema, the sleeping giant proletariat, unlike the adventurous lumpen and the isolated slaves of the small holdings, only needs to first awaken, to be awakened through class consciousness and party. In other words, it correlates with the situation of the “class itself” and only has to come to itself, become “for itself,” through the right form of organization. The proletarians as members of the lowest class, which only served the Roman state of antiquity by providing progeny (proles), from the Marxist perspective the wage-laborer without ownership of the means of production, implies homogeneity in many respects. Even just this figure of the wage-laborer represents a normalized dominant, the proletarian “class for itself” all the more so, which emerges through the specific forms of organization of unions and mass political parties and which, most of all, can only take up the struggle against the ruling class as a unified class.

Even though the allusion of the term to the proletariat suggests regarding today’s precariat as movement and organization of the dispersed precarious people, in terms of the dispersion of the actors it is more analogous to the small-holding peasants, in terms of the broad social situation more analogous to the figure of the lumpen proletariat. Unlike the image of the sleeping giant of the proletariat, which must be awakened through class consciousness and a political party, the precariat is a monster that knows no sleep. There is no teleological movement here from sleeping to class consciousness; there is neither the empiricism of the class itself nor the political invocation of a class for itself, but rather a constant becoming, questioning, struggling. The precariat cannot stand for an empirically determined problem nor for a future model of salvation. Nor is it in any way simply the other pole of precarity, somehow analogous to the “class for itself” in its relationship to the “class itself”. The figure of the precarious indicates dispersion, fragility, multitude. The precariat does not represent a unified, homogeneous or even ontological formation, but is instead distributed and dispersed among many hot spots, not only because of weakness or incapacity, but also as a discontinuity of geography and production, as distribution in space. Regardless of the form that the concatenation of the precariat assumes, regardless of the forms of (self-) organization it develops, the term itself indicates that in its modes of cooperation it does not fall back into uniformity and structuralization. If the precariat is anything at all, then it is itself precarious.

To grasp the machinic quality of this potentiality and precarity of the precarious, let us open up a final etymological view into the broad space of Indo-European languages. Here the Greek mechané and the Latin machina prove to belong to the etymological line of the hypothetical Indo-European root *magh-, which is probably related to the old Indian maghá and the Iranian magu-, referring to the semantic field of “power, force, capacity”. In addition to echoes in various Slavic languages, *magh- is also the root for the German word Macht (“power”) through the Gothic and Old High German mag for “mag, kann” (cf. also the Anglo-Saxon maegen) and the Gothic mahts.

If we want to make use of this etymological line for our questions about the machinic mode of social composition and concatenation, then instead of understanding this power as a synonym for domination, we take it initially – following Foucault – as a relation of forces. In this sense the machine is not the means of a powerful subject, which thus accomplishes its metabolic exchange with nature, but rather a differential relationship, an assemblage that provides impulses for specific modes of subjectivation. Most of all, however, following Spinoza’s understanding, power is to be understood here before any stratification, appropriation and instrumentalization as potency, capability and possibility.

This potency, this capability is the power of abstract machines. The terminological constellation of the powerful-possible-machinic and of abstraction first of all permeates potency and actualization. In this respect, abstraction does not refer to dissociation, misappropriation, detachment, distancing from the “real”. The separation of the social from the technical machine or the general from the particular is specifically not what distinguishes the abstractness of abstract machines. Instead of actualizing abstraction as detachment, as separation, I understand abstract machines as transversal concatenations that cross through multiple fields of immanence, enabling and multiplying the connections in this field of immanence. The way that abstract machines correlate with capability and possibility, does not imply that they were first separated from “reality” in order to then “grow together” with this real in the condensation of con-cretion. Abstract machines are neither universals nor ideals, they are virtually real machines of possibility. They do not exist before and beyond, but rather on this side of the separation of assemblages of signs and assemblages of bodies, forms of expression and forms of content, discursive and non-discursive dispositives, what is sayable and what is visible. They exist on this side of the separation, yet they do not exacerbate the opposition of bodies and signs, but rather enable them to flow together.

The “transcendental” abstract machine, which remains isolated at the level of the outline, which does not succeed in conjoining with concrete concatenations, is only a special case. Lethal machines like the legislative-executive machine in Kafka’s Penal Colony or the love machine in Jarry’s Supermale, no matter how complex they may be, are “dead” machines, because they lack socio-political concatenations: the machine that carves the judgment into the delinquent in the Penal Colony, pronouncing the judgment god-like directly in the body, establishes an unmediated relationship between bodies and signs, but after the death of the former commander, whose law it had obeyed, it has no link to social machines. Its case is similar to the love machine, which falls in love with the “supermale”, then turns around and kills the lover: the machine, actually built to propel the “supermale” to enhanced love performances, takes on a lethally high voltage and breaks off every concrete concatenation. The “supermale” dies like the officer in the Penal Colony in the machine, not as its component, one of its gears, but as its raw material. And yet the union of the mechanized human and humanizing technical machine persists at the stage of a one-dimensional exchange relationship in “transcendental” abstraction. For machines, which like the judgment pronouncing-executing machine in the Penal Colony and the loving-killing machine in Supermale cannot extend and expand in a montage, the logical end is self-demontage, self-destruction.

So much for the special case of the “dead”, “transcendental” abstract machine. But how could a “living” abstract machine be imagined, what are its quality and intensity, what are its components? The power and abstraction of the abstract machine are evident in three components, into which a deep ambivalence is inscribed: diffusity, virtuosity, monstrosity. 1. The diffusity of the abstract machine means being dispersed among the most diverse production locations, modes of production, social strata. 2. The virtuosity of the abstract machine means its quality as abstract knowledge, cognitive and affective labor and general intellect. 3. The monstrosity of the abstract machine means its disposition as a formless form.

In his “modern novel” The Supermale (Le Surmâle, 1902), Alfred Jarry created a paradoxical anti-hero, who is actually a perfectly conventional, almost exaggeratedly normal human being. Physical exercise does not particularly agree with the “supermale” Marcueil, he is not fit enough for it. The “man whose strength is boundless” gets sea sick on the train and is afraid of accidents. And yet in the interplay and confrontation with machines Marcueil develops “superhuman” machinic powers, becomes himself an abstract machine. Even though the novel is constructed as a mad utopia and situated in the future (1920), the diffusity, virtuosity, monstrosity of the “supermale” is an immanent one.

In the “ten thousand mile race”, the mad race between a Rapid Express and a five- or six-man bicycle team, the race between machine and man is to be decided. “Lying horizontally on the five-man tandem – the 1920 standard model for racing: no handlebars, fifteen-millimeter tires, covering a stretch of seventy-five meters thirty-eight with each rotation of the pedal –, our faces lower than the saddle and protected by masks to keep us free from wind and dust, our ten legs on the right and left each linked together by an aluminum rod.” Not enough that the cyclists represent a complete merging with their machine, they are also doped with a special food, the “perpetual motion food”, the marketing of which is actually the occasion for the ten thousand mile race.

In the test of strength between the mechanical steam machine and the doped bio-machine there is no evident advantage for some time. Over long stretches the train and the human super racing machine are on a par, even if one of the cyclists expires from exhaustion or as an effect of the doping in between: “You can sleep well on a machine, you can just as well die on a machine.” At first the others strain themselves to pull the corpse along (“this dead body sat there buckled on, girded on, under seal and officially certified on its saddle”), then it comes to the “sprint of the dead Jacob” (“a sprint that no living person could even imagine”), and the racing bicycle takes the lead again. More and more indications appear, however, that there is a third, unofficial competitor involved: a “shadow”, a hunchback that increasingly sets out to pass both competitors. “Yet at a speed like ours, neither anything living nor anything mechanical would have been capable of following us.” Exactly: the thesis of the book is that there is an AND, living and mechanical, that is not at all to be found only in the progressive merging of man and technical machine. The “supermale” crosses the path of the other two teams as “half-wit cyclist”, jolts, stumbles and pedals in the empty air, riding a bicycle without a chain. His chain did not break, “he rode a chainless machine!” The Rapid Express burns up its wagons, the racing cyclists slash their tires to avoid taking off, and yet they have no chance against the half-wit cyclist supermale riding in zigzag lines. Faster than light, he passes up the locomotive and the racing machine.

1. When Marx, in the “Eighteenth Brumaire”, names the poor means of communication of the French alongside poverty as a particular obstacle to the organizing of the small-holding peasants, the most numerous class in France, he hits an important point, the variability of which could also represent a qualitative turnaround for the question of how to link the small-holders of today. In a sense, the dispersion and isolation of the French small-holding peasants is actually repeated under current postfordist conditions, and the refusal to organize of the lumpen proletariat “thrown hither and thither” is repeated as well. Diffusity, abstraction in the sense of dispersion and precarization lead in this respect primarily to competition, lack of solidarity, and opportunism. Yet as the political and economic circumstances at the time of the industrial revolution were somewhat different from those of today in advanced postfordist capitalism, the question of a new potentiality of the concatenation of singularities and struggles arises anew. Communication among the small-holding peasants in the 19th century must be primarily imagined as direct communication. The dispersion of the locations and modes of production was necessarily accompanied by isolation, in contrast to concentration in the factory. For the seemingly analogous phenomena of a new dispersion in the transformation from the dominant fordist paradigm of the factory to the postfordist affective and cognitive paradigm, however, a different situation applies. This paradigm is veritably based on cooperation, intercourse, exchange, all aspects that virtually function as the imperative of postfordist production.

Instead of the clearly negative connotation of dispersion as obstructing all social intercourse, the present conditions offer an ambivalent situation, which manifests both a lack of direct communication and the potentiality of new forms of communication in the dispersion. Thus, to the modes of existence in abstraction, in diffusity, there also inheres the potential in itself to generate concatenations of singularities instead of identitary and communitary forms of societization. Whereas the French small-holding peasants were not only dispersed, but also in servitude under the old communal forms of family and village, today new forms of concatenation are to be invented that make use of the diffusity of singularities to desert from machinic enslavement and social subjection: concatenations of chain-less machines connected by the lack of any ties.

Undoubtedly, means of communication today are mostly accessible to increasingly wider circles. Even the extreme geopolitical inequalities in this respect are in upheaval today. At the same time, it is clear that these changed conditions are not necessarily to be equated with an emancipatory use of media progress inherent to the media. Machinic enslavement, conducting modes of subjectivation beyond social subjection, is the governmental shadow side of the potentiality even of advanced means of communication. The dependency on machines is multiplied through the continual attachment to the machines, the constant mode of being attached to machines. The high art of machinic enslavement interlocks a permanent online life with the imperative of life-long learning and the irresolvable merging of business deals and affects. The streams of desire of the ubiquitous attachments generate new forms of dependency, which make the material penetration of the technical machine into the human body appear as a secondary horror scenario. And yet, the desiring machines are not simply tools of machinic enslavement; the minor advantages of the resistive use of new abstract and diffuse machines in dispersion are by no means always already over-coded.

2. Beyond the technological and communication-technical conditions, the crucial material of abstract machines is knowledge production and cognitive work. If the diffusity in cooperation, intercourse and exchange is the structuring imperative of postfordist production, the virtuosity of abstract knowledge is its central raw material. Marx describes the machine of the industrial revolution in the Fragment on Machines as having a soul of its own, being self-moving and, most of all, being itself a virtuoso. It takes this virtuosity from the workers, whose virtuosic handling of their instruments, their tools, once animated and moved these, but whose labor on and in the machine merges into an activity that is “reduced to a mere abstraction”, “determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery”. In this relationship there is a sharp separation between virtuosity and abstraction: the machine appears as a virtuoso, the activity of the worker as abstract. Here I would not call for a reversal and return to the earlier relationship between workers and means of labor, but rather question the separation of virtuosity and abstraction. This separation blurs under the present conditions of cognitive capitalism, in which virtuosity increasingly correlates with abstraction.[1]

To examine this assertion, we can return again to the concept introduced by Marx in passing, the concept of the general intellect, also the explicit starting point for the Italian (Post-) Operaists for their ideas on the struggles of mass intellectuality and immaterial labor. In The Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno picks up directly from Marx’ machine fragment and the concept of the general intellect. Whereas in the era of industrialization social knowledge was supposed to be completely absorbed in the technical machines, this becomes unthinkable in the postfordist context: “We should consider the dimension where the general intellect, instead of being incarnated (or rather, cast in iron) into the system of machines, exists as attribute of living labor.” Virno emphasizes that constellations of concepts develop specifically within contemporary labor processes, which themselves function as productive machines, “without having to adopt the form of a mechanical body or of an electronic valve”, and thinks the machinic beyond being cast in iron especially in the fields of abstract knowledge and language.

In Virno’s theses, Marxist and poststructuralist machine theory, Marx and Guattari finally overlap. Because of the logic of economic development and the development of modes of production itself, it is necessary to understand the machine not as a mere structure that striates the workers, socially subjects them and encloses social knowledge within itself. Going beyond the Marxian notion of knowledge absorbed in the fixed capital of the machine, Virno thus posits his thesis of the social quality of the intellect: in postfordism, the raw material and means of production of living labor is the capacity for thinking, learning, communicating, imagining and inventing, which is expressed through language. The general intellect no longer presents itself only in the knowledge contained and enclosed in the system of technical machines, but rather in the immeasurable and boundless cooperation of cognitive affective workers.

Taking over the Marxian concept of the intellect with an emphasis on general thus indicates that intellect is not to be understood as the exclusive competency of an individual, but rather as a transversal, machinic-social quality, as abstract knowledge in the sense of the concept of abstraction earlier alluded to. The generalization that resonates in the concepts abstract and general is not, even though it would seem to suggest itself, to be understood in the sense of a totalization or universalization, but rather as the tendency of a potentiality that is open to all sides, shared by all. Virtuosity enters into social labor as a workless activity, its score is the general intellect. The “trans-individual” aspect of the general intellect refers not only to the totality of all knowledge accumulated by the human species, to the commonality of a shared capacity assumed to be antecedent, but most of all to the action of living labor coordinated between cognitive workers, their communicative interaction, abstraction and self-reflection, their cooperation. However, the objection should be raised in contradiction to Virno that no anthropological constants of any kind are needed to imagine singular-abstract intellectuality, not even a “pre-individual” quality of language and reason. Specifically this separation of the sayable from the visible, the general from the individual, the abstraction from virtuosity is, in fact, what is thwarted by abstract machines.

3. In the idiosyncratic back-and-forth between the worlds, between the various zones of strict immanence, as it occurs in Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman, there is an uncanny underground region, an eternity machine, which the two policemen always have to hold in a certain balance, so that their “measurements” do not shoot up into the “danger zone”. At the entrance to eternity there is an elevator descending at an incredibly fast speed. Eternity itself proves to be a combination of long passageways and gigantic halls that all look exactly the same.

The eternity machine is called that because time does not pass in its interior. Yet not only time stands still, but also space – eternity has no size at all, “because there is no difference anywhere in it, and we have no conception of the extent of its unchanging coequality.” Accordingly, there are also things in this immeasurable space that have no known dimensions, that evade every description. Even their shape cannot be grasped by the eye. They have the special feature of being featureless, the special form of formlessness.

Abstract machines are things like this, which have themselves no form, are formless, amorphous, unformed. Yet their unformed-ness is not to be understood here as a lack, but rather as the ambivalent precondition for the emergence of fear as well as for the invention of new, terrifying forms of concatenation. At one pole of current modes of existence in cognitive capitalism there is formlessness as the trigger for the overflowing and interlocking of fear and anxiety – whereby this blurring assemblage cannot be reduced to a psychological or anthropological category or a desperate fight to return to fordist wage labor conditions. The uncertainty of working conditions, irregular ways of living and the omnipresence of precarization allow anxiety to become diffused in all social situations as a no longer purely mental problem. At the other pole there is formlessness as the potentiality of the development of a terrifying monstrosity: new dangerous classes, non-conforming masses, micropolitical precarious monsters. Here abstract machines are to be understood as anti-identitarian non-form and potentiality of forming, which trigger clear forms of expression and content in concrete concatenations. The power and capacity of abstract machines are found in the monstrous attack on the striated/striating form of state apparatuses and on the amalgamating enclosure within the community.

Once again: the diffusity, virtuosity, monstrosity of abstract machines are to be seen as basically ambivalent. Like all machines, abstract machines are productive components of cognitive capitalism; they can be coopted as soon as they are made or imagined, as soon as they are invented. However, ambivalence also implies here that in every thinking, every experience of immanence minor advantages of a not yet coopted machinic difference emerge. These advantages are probably the source of the great charm that is sometimes also about bicycles, such as on 19 May 2007, when the ladyride moved through Vienna: as a queer appropriation of the mass bicycle rides of the Critical Mass and, at the same time, of the feminist genealogy of the bicycle in the first women’s movement. Under the motto “Won’t you bike my ladyride?”, a group of ladyfest activists of all genders rolled from station to station. These stations involved the political situating of the city and its stolen, silenced and looted stories, from the trans-les-bi-gay victims of National Socialism through the history of sex work to migrant labor struggles. A swarm of thieves on bicycles reappropriating the street and the city in a queer feminist city tour on wheels. There was not only sight-seeing along the route, though, but also collective traffic calming and spontaneous street blockades. “Honk, if you love us!”, was a motto then, or: “Wer ist der Verkehr? Wir sind der Verkehr!”[2]. It is precisely in this that the quality of the machine beyond humanist, mechanistic and cybernetic interpretations consists: in the insistence of a dissonant power, a monstrous potency and enjoyment, in the ambiguous re-invention of Verkehr as a non-conforming concatenation of differences, singularities, multitudes in an a-harmonious composition without a composer.

[1] On the question of virtuosity after and beyond Marx, cf. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Viking, 1968; Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotexte, 2004, especially 52ff.; Isabell Lorey, “VirtuosInnen der Freiheit. Zur Implosion von politischer Virtuosität und produktiver Arbeit”, in: Grundrisse 23,

[2] Here we find a threefold bifurcation of the German word “Verkehr”: 1. the concrete traffic of the cars, bicycles and persons in the city space, 2. the queer appropriation of the sexual connotations of “Geschlechtsverkehr”, 3. the social intercourse and exchange in Marx’ and Stirner’s sense. 

Gerald Raunig


Aileen Derieg (translation)


other languages

Recomposition and Movement Neuzusammensetzung und Bewegung Абстрактные машины Recomposición y movimiento