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<nettime> Affective Composition and Aesthetics
stevphen shukaitis on Sun, 22 Jul 2007 22:40:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Affective Composition and Aesthetics

 From the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest  

Affective Composition and Aesthetics: On Dissolving the Audience and  
Facilitating the Mob
Stevphen Shukaitis

First there was a scream. A shattering of an understanding of the  
world, dislocated by the shock of the real.  Suspended between that  
rupture in perception and the realization that it need not be this  
way something happened. The chance spotting of a marker, a beacon  
marking the travels of others who no longer wished to be involved in  
the bloody machinations of the world as is, but who struggled against  
it not with a sense of stoic ardor but rather of insurgent joy. Do  
you remember it? Maybe it was the rhythms of a marching band  
lingering over streets, or an absurd slogan scrawled on an alley  
wall, or the appearance on a revolutionary army of clowns. In  
passing, fleeting, ephemeral moment, perhaps not even realized at the  
time: a minor motion, internal movement traced along the contours of  
an emerging collective time. And in that moment, everything changes.  
Bodies milling about, held awkwardly at a distance, a space  
maintained and looks a little chilly. Not from malice or mistrust,  
but from not knowing. But in that instant borders fall. The first hit  
of the drum is the first crack in the wall of the objectifying,  
separating gaze, the space created by the passive stare of an  
audience towards a performance, an exhibition: a spectacle.

As the melody pulses through the crowd we revel in the timbre of the  
horns. Arms, words, memory and noise tenuously connect through time  
and desire. Rage blends with joy; dislocation replaced by emerging,  
momentary worlds. Perhaps we can call this an aesthetics of refusal:  
not the refusal of the aesthetic domain, not a call to realize art by  
transcending it. It embodies, rather, the refusal to separate  
aesthetics from flux of the on-going social domain. An art of intense  
relations, not as anaesthetic to reduce pain, maintain stability in  
the face of precarious existence, for the anaesthetic "only masks  
symptoms; it does not treat the root causes of pain, to trace it back  
to its source, gave it meaning, or counter it with pleasure"(1)?but a  
much older radical practices of aesthetics as immediacy and affective  

 From these fleeting moments the movement and self-institution of the  
radical imagination is born. It unfolds in a process of affective  
composition in aesthetic politics. At this nexus unfolds a conception  
of an aesthetics based on focusing on the relations and intensities  
emerging within the process of collective creation rather than the  
content of the artistic composition. A sense of aesthetics focused on  
the relations of production not as a concern secondary to the content  
of what is produced, but rather as the explicit process of self- 
institution and creation of a space where the art of politics is  
possible. That is, rather than assuming the existence of a forum  
where politics, the creation of intersubjective understandings that  
make collective life possible, can be articulated through art. Here  
we see the creation of an affective space: a common space and  
connection that is the necessary precondition for connections,  
discussion, and communities to emerge. This is political art?not  
necessarily because of the directly expressed content of the work?but  
because of the role this plays in drawing lines of flight away from  
staggering weight of everyday life, in hybridizing sounds and  
experience to create space where other relations and possibilities  
can emerge.

The Constituent Spiral

The people are missing. -- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari(2)

One recurring challenge for political art is to circumvent the  
assumption, implicitly contained within a didactic composition, that  
the work's arguments and take place in an already existing public  
sphere?the common ground and frame of reference?that preexists the  
particular expression. Unaware of this challenge, much political  
artwork strives to create interesting and compelling arguments,  
flourishes of speech, in hopes that the message will reach the  
listener with little interference. In order for political speech to  
cause affective resonance conditions need to exist for the  
constituted audience to be able to identify with those who are  
expressing them, to possess a capacity to affect and be affected.  
This process of affective composition so often begins from minor  
moments and interactions: yet through them spaces of commonality,  
where new relations and interactions are possible, emerge. The  
observation that the people are missing then is not a lament, but a  
realization that the task of politics is precisely the composition of  
common space through processes of intensive engagement not bound by  
the closure of already understood identities and positions.

The concept of affective composition is formed by the bringing  
together of notions of affect with the autonomist notion of class  
composition. The concept of affect was developed in a submerged  
history of philosophy, stretching from Spinoza to Deleuze and  
Guattari (and having been developed further by figures such as  
Antonio Negri and Genevieve Lloyd), to indicate an increase in  
capacity to affect or to be affected by the world. For Deleuze and  
Guattari, artistic creation is the domain of affective resonance,  
where imagination shifts through the interacting bodies. Composition  
is used here, borrowing from the autonomist Marxist notion of class  
composition, indicating the autonomous and collective capacities to  
change the world created through social resistance. As forms of  
collective capacity and self-organization are increased, composed by  
the circulation of struggles and ideas, the workings of the state and  
capitalism attempt to find ways to disperse them or to integrate  
these social energies into their own workings. Thus there are formed  
cycles of the composition, decomposition, and recomposition of  
struggles. A key insight of autonomist thought was the argument that  
the nature of struggles and the forms of social cooperation created  
within in them determine the direction of capitalist development,  
rather than the autonomous self-directed power of capital.  
Considering affective composition through forms of street art and  
performance is to look at the ways that the capacities they create  
contribute to the development of affective capacities and forms of  
self-organization. It is the ways in which street arts can take place  
in what the Infernal Noise Brigade mission statement describes as  
"facilit[ating] the self-actualization of the mob."(3)

The affective composition of relations and intensities in aesthetic  
politics is a pressing question because of ways that the  
possibilities for the existence of public and common space have  
changed over recent years. The increasingly drastic commercialization  
of public space, corporate domination of media outlets, and  
predominance of fear mongering in all areas of life, has created a  
condition where there are immense flows of information and data  
available for discussion, but precious little public sphere in which  
this data can resonate. Paolo Virno argues that where forms of  
collective intelligence do not find expression in a public sphere  
where common affairs can be attended to it produces terrifying  
effects and proliferations of unchecked and groundless hierarchies.  
These are areas of "publicness without a public sphere."(4) There are  
flows of information and images constantly surrounding and immersing  
us that allow for new possibilities for communication and the  
formation of subjectivities, but can also be quite overwhelming and  
go in directions that are not necessarily liberatory. Chat rooms and  
blogs meld seamlessly with the commercial landscapes of gentrified  
cities and the 24-hour a day flow of "news" that may excite the  
libido or intone the constant reminder of "be afraid," but do not  
constitute a common place of collective engagement. More than  
anything they tend to pro-actively prevent the emergence of shared  
space in ways that have not been overcoded by the workings of state  
or capital.

Relying on the expected aesthetics of propaganda means circumscribing  
possible patterns of resonance more limited than might be wished.  
Political art derives its politics not just by its content, but also  
by the ways in which it is designed to work with or against the  
predetermined forms of circulation of ideas, images, and relations.  
In other words, to appreciate that forms of street art do not derive  
their subversiveness simply from the fact that they occur on the  
street (which can also include a whole range of viral marketing and  
quotidian forms of spectacular recuperation), but rather from  
unfolding the relations that avoid the overcoding operations of the  
art institution and commodity production. It is this focus on  
patterns of circulation and relations as a politico-aesthetic  
activity, what George Katsiaficas describes as "engaging aesthetic  
rationality in the process of political transformation, of turning  
politics into art, everyday life into an aesthetically governed  
domain," that comprises the process of affective composition.(5)

Immediatist (Re)compositions

Magic, shamanism, esotericism, the carnival, and 'incomprehensible'  
poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and  
attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and  
his communicative structures. -- Julia Kristeva(6)

By far the most well thought out attempt to elaborate a notion of  
political aesthetics based on the relations contained and enabled by  
them is Hakim Bey's notion of "immediatism." As a form of utopian  
poetics, immediatism describes creative collective activity designed  
to reduce the degree of mediation involved in artistic activity. It  
is based on forms of play and the free exchange of gifts (and  
performances) in a way intended to avoid the logic of  
commodification. There is no passive consumption: all who are  
spectators must also be participants. Immediatism strives not towards  
the production of art objects, but rather of immediately present  
experiences and connections for those who are participating in its  
creative realms of the clandestine institution of community through  
shared creation. Indeed, Bey suggests that the best immediatist agit- 
prop "will leave no trace at all, except in the souls of those who  
are changed by it."(7) Thus immediatist practices involve a wide  
variety of activities not typically thought of within the rubric of  
the arts. For instance the quilting bee, formed as a practice of  
spontaneous non-hierarchical patterning producing something useful  
and beautiful to be given to someone involved in the quilting circle,  
can be expanded to include parties, potlatches, banquets, and forms  
of artistic happenings and events. Whatever particular case may be,  
the key notion is to reduce as much as possible the presence of  
mediation in the construction of collectively experienced situations  
and the shared presence of them.

It is in this sense that radical marching bands are of the most  
interest: in the ways they undercut the usual space (and sometimes  
relations) of artistic performance and create mobile and affective  
spaces in the streets where other forms of relations can emerge. For  
even the most lyrically subversive punk band more often than not  
performs in a situation that maintains that there are those who are  
performing, generally upon a stage of some sort, and an audience  
which is watching them. Projects such as the Hungry March Band, the  
Infernal Noise Brigade, and Rhythms of Resistance, closely connected  
with the late 1990s upswing in streets protests and parties such as  
Reclaim the Streets, brought carnivalesque energies and excitement  
into the stale, ritualistic mode of political protest. Radical  
marching bands and other forms of tactical frivolity were important  
in keeping open space for the emergence of intensive and affective  
relations within such spaces, relations which hopefully would lead  
their ways out on to the fabric of daily life.

Not surprisingly then the repertoire of many marching bands is also a  
veritable melting pot of styles, cultures, and background, bringing  
together anything from jazz and big band tunes to klezmer, Moroccan  
music and Indian wedding tunes to calypso, salsa, reggae, and Sun Ra.  
There are also large degrees of inspiration from projects that have  
merged together the energy of punk rock and street performance, such  
as Crash Worship and ¡Tchkung! (who had members that went on to form  
marching bands). There are large degrees of crossover and mixing  
between political marching bands and other forms of street and  
performance art and theater (such as Vermont's Bread & Puppet  
Theatre, which provided a key source of inspiration for many marching  
bands) as well as underground circus and vaudeville (such as the  
Bindlestiff Family Circus and Circus Contraption).

One of the best examples I can think of how a marching band altered  
the composition of a situation occurred at the Foo Festival in  
Providence, Rhode Island in July 2006. The event, organized by people  
from AS220, a local arts space, filled the greater part of a city  
bloc while literally thousands of people milled about attending  
various talks and workshops, casually munching on food and browsing  
through the wares of booksellers and watching bands and musicians  
perform on a stage located near one end of the festival. At several  
points during the day the What Cheer? Brigade, a local marching band,  
would materialize replete with propulsive drumming and piercing  
horns, resplendent in motley attire that one would be hard pressed to  
call uniforms. Their appearance changed the nature of the situation  
because as they would enter the space people would begin to dance and  
frolic around with them as they moved through the space, rather than  
staying fixed upon the stage as a focal point, one which clearly  
marked the difference between those who were performing and  
observing. This increase in the generalized level of conviviality  
affected not only those directly involved in the dancing, but seemed  
to move beyond itself as those around it somehow found new reasons to  
converse and interact with people they hadn't spoken with before.

The marching band may most commonly be experienced as an appendage to  
the state form, as a space defined by tightly scripted and controlled  
lines and the military insignia. They are encountered at the military  
or civic parade, or perhaps as a motivational soundtrack to a sports  
competition.  And it is perhaps this association that makes their  
playful détournement and reappropriation to serve other ends all the  
more delicious. March music might usually typically have resonance  
with the workings of the war machine, but as Deleuze and Guattari  
would remind us, this war machine can never totally be integrated  
into the workings of governance: there is always something that  
escapes. It is a process that exceeds that subject and existing  
communicative structures yet paradoxically one that creates a space  
where the possibility of transversal commonality exists. And the war  
machine, understood as a space of exteriority to the state, can also  
be understood as a transformation machine, as the nomadic flows and  
machinations that constitutes spaces of possibility.

Stencil art and graffiti as well as street performances play an  
important in breaking down the forms of relations created by artistic  
activity as separated or removed from daily life because it can be  
inscribed within the flows of people's everyday lives. But this does  
not inherently mean that such activities contain the possibility for  
reorienting people's expectations or will result in certain  
responses. And indeed, it is possible for what was once an innovative  
creative activity to become standardized and expected in such ways  
that the affectivity it initially generated is longer as intensive or  
effective in its workings.

This constituent and affective space for creating new relations is  
not one that can be created and continues to exist without  
interference or difficulty. Temporary autonomous zones are temporary  
for a reason, namely the realization that attempts to create such  
spaces will inevitably face repression and recuperation. Thus, it is  
often not tactically sensible to create a space and maintain it  
(investing time, energies, and cost) against all odds. These moments  
and spaces, which are described quite well by the Leeds May Day Group  
as "moments of excess."(8) But the compositional capacities of these  
ruptures are not unlimited, for they too through repetition become  
ritualized and fall back into solidified patterns of circulation. The  
question becomes one of keeping open the affective capacities of the  
created space: to finds ways to avoid the traps of spectacular  
recuperation and the solidification of constituent moments and  
possibilities into fixed and constituted forms that have lost their  

This would mean to work with a sense of aesthetics and composition  
that is not necessarily or totally based upon the elements contained  
within the work itself, but on understanding the possibilities  
created for affective relations, spaces, and interactions and their  
intensification and deepening by the process of artistic creation.  
This is to understand artistic creation as what George Hubler  
describes as the shaping of time: art as a succession of works and  
productions distributed through time that embody the development of  
forms of collective time and relations. That is, a process that is  
not necessarily predicated upon the creation of meaning, but as an  
intervention or opening into a system of relations, connecting  
innovations that are passed along and mutated through the modulation  
of the relations in which they exist, on a terrain and topology of  
time "where relationships rather than magnitudes are the subject of  
study."(9) The creation of affective spaces and possibilities, the  
common spaces and moments that underlie and make possible intensive  
forms of politics, is not a task that happens once and is finished,  
or ever could be, but is an on-going task of the self-institution of  
the radical imagination. As an ever-renewing process, moving and  
intensifying from the public sphere to constituent spirals of  
possibility, focusing of the affective composition of these moments  
means to focus on the possibilities for collective self-creation  
drawing from the relations created by shared creation.


1. David Levi Strauss (1999) "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics," Between  
Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 12.
2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1986) Kafka: Towards a Minor  
Literature. Trans. Dana Polen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota  
Press, 216. Also see Nick Thoburn's excellent book Deleuze, Marx, and  
Politics (2003) London: Routledge.
3. Quoted in Jennifer Whitney (2003) "Infernal Noise: The Soundtrack  
to Insurrection," We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global  
Anticapitalism. Ed. Notes from Nowhere. London: Verso, 219. See also  
Jean Leason (2007) "Music on the March: How Protest Learned to  
Dance," Fifth Estate 374: 21-24.
4. Paolo Virno (2004) A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of  
Contemporary Forms of Life. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James  
Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. New York: Semiotext(e), 40-41.
5 George Katsiaficas (2001) The Subversion of Politics: European  
Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life. New  
Jersey: Humanities Press, 310.
6. Julia Kristeva (1984) Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans.  
Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 16.
7. Hakim Bey (1994) Immediatism. San Francisco: AK Press, 26.
8. Leeds May Day Group (2004) "Moments of Excess." Available at  
9. George Kubler (1962) The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of  
Things. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 83.

Stevphen Shukaitis
Autonomedia Editorial Collective

"Autonomy is not a fixed, essential state. Like gender, autonomy is  
created through its performance, by doing/becoming; it is a political  
practice. To become autonomous is to refuse authoritarian and  
compulsory cultures of separation and hierarchy through embodied  
practices of welcoming difference... Becoming autonomous is a  
political position for it thwarts the exclusions of proprietary  
knowledge and jealous hoarding of resources, and replaces the social  
and economic hierarchies on which these depend with a politics of  
skill exchange, welcome, and collaboration. Freely sharing these with  
others creates a common wealth of knowledge and power that subverts  
the domination and hegemony of the master's rule." - subRosa Collective

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