Kenneth Surin: “On Producing (the Concept of) Solidarity”

Surin approaches the concept of the common via an irreducible tension between agency and solidarity. He maintains that they are in a sort of chick-or-egg relationship to each other, and that we cannot conceive of either as anterior to the other: each is produced only in tandem with the other. Taking up a Spinozan ontology by way of Deleuze, he considers ideas or theories as operating on expressivities, or things considered as loci of effects. Surin’s move here is to break down the distinction between theory and practice, interior and exterior, thought and reality. Thought and materiality arise together; one is not reducible to the other; thus according to Surin a theory is a “practice of concepts.” There is no substantive difference between theory and practice; each is produced with the other. His question vis-a-vis the common, then is how structure and agency act conjointly to produce social solidarity. He lists four 20th century theories that attempt to explain this: Foucault’s “practice of subjectivation,” Raymond Williams’ “structure of feeling,” Althusser’s “aleatory materialism” and Deleuze and Guattari’s “desiring production.” The bulk of his essay, however, focuses on Williams and Deleuze and Guattari.

Williams argued that “the conventions of any period are fundamentally related to the structure of feeling in that period.” This affective structure is embedded in material practice, as in the case of Williams’ dying father, who was helped in multiple small ways by an ad hoc network of fellow working class members (one individual would do the wash, another would leave a sack of potatoes at the door, etc.). For Williams, this set of values is not taught through culture; it is arises and is maintained through labor itself. “Culture, therefore,” sums up Surin, “is a ‘whole way of life,’ which is constantly being remade and reappropriated by its citizens, who are at once the agents of change and the recipients of change.” Culture is more than the superstructure of an economic base, and is not just replicated in transmission, but expressed in practice, and is thus subject to constant revision and innovation. It is actively constructed.

Surin then turns to Deleuze’s notion of the “anomalous,” a liminal domain between the “substantial forms” and “determined subjects.” The anomalous has its own form of individuation, radically different from the well-formed subjects that receive this expression. The model of the individual that emerges is “a potentially infinite multiplicity, the product of “a phantasmagoric movement between an inside and an outside.” (455) On this account, production is always repetition of difference; each multiplicity is composed of absolute singularity, and thus can only affirm its difference from every other thing. Capitalism works on a similar principle: it is predicated on repetition of identity, equivalence, and intersubstitutibility. At the heart of capitalist production, then, is the process of individuation itself, but also a “countervailing constituent power that brings forth the agents and forces needed to resist it.” This countervailing power is irreducibly anomalous, “ a dynamism based on an excess or exteriority, and whose ensuing productivity is defined by neither a foundation or a pregiven order.” Surin suggests that this power is what enables the construction of the common. Both Williams and D&G, then, offers alternative ways of conceptualizing solidarity that are local, unassimilable by capital, and disruptive in its newness.

-ZH

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