Below is a piece on militant research as done by the Precarias a la Deriva. I’m under the impression they aren’t currently doing this kind of work but are instead focusing on Todas a Cien. There’s a militant research aspect to that work, though (as I argued in a sense here). The piece is translated by Maggie, a la deriva por America.

Of questions, illusions, swarms and deserts

Notes on research and activism from Precarias a la Deriva

This text is a close-up of a particular trajectory of activist research, (its tools, its motors, its difficulties) which up to the present has been called Precarias a la deriva. A close-up which may say something about research, something about activism, and something about the high-wire walk from one to the other and back. Most of the questions posed are inspired by exchanges with other authors of this book* (especially with Colectivo Situaciones and with a friend from Barcelona), by all that was discussed in the workshop “Activist research, knowledge production and social transformation” and in various moments of discussion, both formal and informal, among the women of Precarias a la deriva. In fact, we are so saturated with all these encounters that at this point we’re not even sure of what we’ve robbed of whom. In any case, what we are sure of is just how much our writing and our thinking have been brought to life thanks to this series of exchanges.

Walk asking

Our friends in Colectivo Situaciones say: “Anyone who searches does so because he has already found”. What we had found was a question: What is your strike? Beyond the interpretations of the world which each one of us might have, this question organized our common trajectory. This question gave rise to Precarias a la deriva. Its true: we didn’t come naked. Readings and political experiences (obrerist, feminist, squatter, antiracist…) had already molded many of our bodies. Also a whole series of insatisfactions: with forms of aggregation based upon identity (political or of clan) or upon ideology, with political action which by means of slogans could avoid taking seriously the questions which our fragmented daily lives posed for us, with forms of public intervention the purely testimonial nature of which became harder and harder to hide, with forms of knowledge which were so disembodied and so circular as to become utterly toothless. Nevertheless, it was not on account of these shared insatisfactions that we began. These dissatisfactions had already been the source of many other attempts at activist research which nonetheless never managed to get beyond the prolegomena. The difference was in the force of a question (what is your strike?) which, launched at just the right moment (the general strike in Spain the 20th of June 2002) through a particular mechanism (the picket-survey), not only brought together a heterogeneous group of women but also situated that group at the very edge of itself.

Let us explain ourselves. A strike is always an appeal to re-situate the identity of the worker in the center. But for those of us who have a twisted sense of being workers (the care-workers, sex-workers, social-workers, precarious freelancers – in translation, design, journalism, research – the teachers, the cleaners, the pizza delivery-students, the vagabonds and wanderers through an ever more pauperized labor market) the notion of a strike never ceases to be a bit of a mystery. We could always do what the Workers – with a capital W- do, overlooking the fact that from our ‘non-typical’ (though ever more common) position in the economy-network crossing our arms for a few hours (or even 24) does not necessarily mean to stop the world or to detain production. Or we could take the practice of the strike seriously and take it on as a challenge. We can ask: “what is your strike?”

Within this question three different movements are condensed. A first one of enunciation: the statement of a problem, at once philosophical and practical, and absolutely timely – the problem of the forms of material interruption of the reproduction of order from within one’s own position in the circuits of the deregulated, precarized and flexibilized city-enterprise, the problem of how to convert a condition into a force of attack and a power of transformation: How might I, by some gesture of interruption or subtraction, destabilize the order in which I am inscribed and which I feed every day? What kind of a gesture might this be? Is it possible to imagine such a gesture as public and collective? Next, there is a second movement of situation: the question “what is your strike?” invites us to depart from ourselves, from our own daily lives, at the crossroads between life conditions and lifestyle, between socioeconomic situation and subjectivity, and thus take up that old feminist practice which refused to separate the personal from the political, the macro from the micro, the theory from the praxis and invited us to politicize existence, to make one’s own every day life a battleground. Lastly, there is a third movement of interpellation: yes, one must take oneself as a point of departure but precisely in order to depart from oneself (from an ego enclosed within its own suffocating limits by social atomization, encouraged by the ideology of professionalism to make a project of itself, fractured by the demands of flexibility and multiple presence); that is, reach across the distances which a hyper-fragmented, hyper-segmented and hyper-competitive social space causes to proliferate, and try to ask – and ask oneself – to see what is going on, to see how interpellation affects me and you, to see whether in the interstices something might come up which might resonate in both, and beyond…

Thus we situate ourselves in the shifting terrain of a dislocated us. We are not exterior to this social field, threaded through by the precarization of existence at which we launch this question: the question involves us directly and personally. But we are also not absolutely interior either, in the sense that our voice might represent the voice of all those whom we interpellate. We are inside and outside, in the joint, dislocated: is there any other way to situate oneself in a terrain as riven by fragmentation and dispersion as the enterprise-cities of the center of the world-economy, any other way to locate oneself in a space-time so infinitely diversified, wherein aggregation is not a datum from which one can begin but rather an arduous task to establish? Is there, we asked, a way to situate oneself there that wouldn’t be pocked with the tension of those who know themselves to be alone and who, nevertheless, are shaken by the desire to share a common which must still be invented (and who therefore are waiting, leaning towards an uncertain outside)?

And so began our trajectory of activist research. Because Precarias a la deriva is nothing more (and nothing less) than that: not a group, not a space, but rather a fragile trajectory which, moreover, must be remade all the time: the next step is never guaranteed by anything beyond a stubborn activist insistence. But here activist takes on a new meaning. We will come back to this later. For the moment let us just say that, to the extent that Precarias a la deriva is nothing more than a trajectory, the only way to explain what it is is genealogical. So let us go back over its route. To the question “what is your strike?” were quickly added others (“what is your precarity?” “what is your war?”) and a series of procedures.

First procedure: the drift. Instead of sitting statically to talk, we decided to move, to travel the routes of urban precarization as we must so often in our own daily lives, but this time not do it alone but together, telling each other the materiality of our precarities, tracing their marks upon the metropolitan space, encountering and interpellating others along the way. The drift, when it is adrift, when it permits us to grasp the city as a common territory which we travel together, literally walking and asking (ourselves), this is when it works (something which is never guaranteed by a “technique” but which must think itself through and make experiments in practice), allowing us to break that distance between you and I, us and them, the researcher and the researched, the activist and ‘the people’, which so frequently opens up in the interview and in other forms of qualitative sociology, as well as in the communicative form par excellence of classic activism: agit&prop. The drift, when it is a drift, with its elements of mobility, of uninterrupted passage through diverse environments, of subjective shifting, of crossing through all kinds of breaks (social, spacial, temporal) which order our daily lives (like that which separates employment and life, or one neighborhood from another, or the connectionist temporality of a communication worker, or that of a live-in domestic worker and transnational care-giver), produces a sort of defamiliarization which permits one to disconnect from routinized forms of perception and exchange: thus permitting us to look and to look at ourselves with new eyes, to tell and tell ourselves with new words, which twists the normalized reality of “everything’s screwed” and “each man for himself.” It is exactly there, in that time-space opened up by the drift-procedure, where, on some occasions, an event of collective perception takes place which opens up subjectivities and creates a field of the possible beyond ‘possibilism.’

Second procedure: recording and narration. From the beginning we accompanied the drift with audiovisual documentation of the moment, as seen and told, and with storytelling. The idea was not so much to reflect a trajectory in order to inform (lets tell you what happened and how it happened), as it was to work collectively upon our own perception, with a eye to prepare-and-communicate – to elaborate and re-elaborate and to circulate (through a web-page, the printing of a book, a video, and public presentations of these materials) this singular process of self-naming, this self-telling from within our own precarized daily life, born of the particular experience of the drift in order that, by virtue of resonances and densification, it might become a broader, shared self-naming (partial, that is, of part) which might include many. To this end, we wrote from the beginning that our intention was “to take seriously the question of communication, not only as a tool of diffusion but also as a new place, a new competence and a raw material for politics.” But when we talk about communication we are not referring to this disembodied communicative sphere in which signs and slogans circulate, ready to be consumed and exchanged. We are interested in a communication which is utterance at ground level, from a particular place, inseparable from the forms of life from which it is born, producer of subjectivity and imaginary. We are interested in communication capable not so much of generating adhesions as of shaking and producing unexpected resonances in others who are also searching and asking (themselves). We are interested in a communication which is the composition of differences and, therefore, the creation of a new real at the edge of the existing one.

Third procedure: the workshop and the assembly. Every once in a while, after (and only after) a series of wild immersion in complex metropolitan circuits, and based upon the re-elaboration of things recorded and narrated, we found it important to meet and, calmly, to try to order and distinguish, to detect common problems, to identify points of force, to trace through them some working hypotheses. It was in these spaces in which the shared perceptions born of the drifts, re-elaborated through documentation and storytelling, gave way, sometimes, to rare moments of collective thinking, of shared production of truth: that is, small and fragile collective events in which the thing and its name come into being at the same time, and are incorporated in the body. What does that mean? That the thing is no longer an infinite and ungraspable complexity and the name is neither just vain verbiage nor a mechanism by which to overdetermine and capture the thing, but rather that both (the name and the thing) arise at the same time, and thereby acquire a powerful shared reality which modifies us subjectively. In this way, the sequence drift-documentation/storytelling-workshop/assembly might be seen as an artisan mechanism, modest but precious, of reappropriation of the conditions by which truth is produced.

What truths, what doubtful certainties, have we molded along the route of Precarias a la deriva? First, a common notion: that precariousness is not a lack but rather an uncertainty with respect to the sustained access to the material and immaterial resources fundamental for the full development of the life of a subject; therefore, precariousness as a threat and a form of permanent blackmail, which threads through and constrains social bonds, but also precariousness as an irreducible desire for mobility, for flight, when faced with unbearable conditions. From this point of view, precariousness today would not be so much a state which effects a given sector of the population but rather a generalized tendency towards the precarization of existence which applies to society as a whole. Second, a clear hard proof of borders: those which are erected by the individualization and the deregulation of labor, by the components of servility and competition which this presents, and by the constitution of individual identity through personal self-activation in relation to projects (the enterprise of migrating, a professional career, an artistic work, a conjugal plan). All of these are elements accompanied and reaffirmed by the ferocious stratification of the labor market (along axes of sex, class, social and national origin, ethnicity, race, sexuality, physical state, age), and likewise a segmentation (flexible but no less effective for that) of the metropolitan space, as well as a strong social fragmentation. Third, a point of strength: that of our relational, communicative and caring abilities as arms by which to subvert the continuum of sex-care-attention, historically assigned to women, which at present is undergoing a series of crises and reconfigurations through which it is acquiring a new centrality (and here we do not mean ‘crisis’ in an exclusively negative sense, but rather as an ambivalent moment of opening of the real, and in this case perhaps an occasion to reinvent Lysistrata, Antigone, Sappho).

All the same, it would be an error to believe that these procedures are the key to our trajectory of activist research, that through them we have the ingredients for a possible methodological model which might be transmitted to others who are searching as we are. On the contrary, the key is in the real operations which the procedures may help to generate. It is for this reason that so many experiences of activist research insist that recipes don’t work: a drift may be something utterly banal or a major event, a series of drifts may end up being a bunch of unconnected leaps leading to ecstatic disorientation or it may produce an authentic itinerary of collective virtuosity capable of mapping a territory. The important thing is not so much choosing one instrument or another but rather seeing what it is that that instrument produces, what modifications it generates, where it takes us, the trajectory which its repeated and declined use can trace. So it is crucial to highlight the extent to which Precarias a la deriva, beyond these procedures, has articulated itself around a (quadruple) search and a challenge, which function as orienting principles within an otherwise open voyage. The search: for common names relating to the precarization of existence, of singularities which compose this dislocated ‘us’, of forms of cooperation, resistance and flight which each one of us practices in a situated manner, whether individually or collectively, and of possible spaces of aggregation capable of taking the question of multiplicity seriously. The challenge: opening a virtuoso process in which the production of knowledge, the production of subjectivity and the fabric of affective-linguistic territories do not occur as separate moments but rather as part of one single sequence propelled by the very material desire for the common in a context in which the common is shattered.

Lastly, neither the questions nor the procedures nor the searches nor the challenge would have led us anywhere if it were not, in the first place, for a certain sense of kairós, a certain ability to seize the occasion, to throw down the dice on the threshold of time; and secondly, for this heterogeneous combination of abilities, savoir faires, relational abilities and skills for moving through diverse territories which unfolded and interwove throughout the process by the varying group of women who made it possible.

Research and organization

After a year and a half of trajectory, with drifts, workshops and assemblies behind us, with a book and a video in our hands, with a fine fistful of photos, slides, audiovisual pieces and scattered stories, with a few attempts at action and others of public presentation of the whole tale, with a diffuse network of people woven around this project in a discontinuous – but no less real for that – manner, we find ourselves jolted by a concern about consistency and organization. What capacity has our artisan walking-asking shown in weaving networks capable of resisting the centrifugal force of the city-enterprise, with its torrent of stimuli and its unregulated temporality? To what extent has our trajectory of research-action been up to the task of really substantially modifying our precarized lives? Might this reiterated conjunction of utterance, situation and interpellation really generate a strong subjective rupture in a large enough group of us, a rupture which could lead us to commit ourselves to each other, which might unilateralize the ambivalence which constitutes us? Is it really possible that a voyage of activist research resolve the problem of points of crystallization of the rebellious networks, in a world in which coinciding repeatedly in the same space-time with a stable and numerous group of people is an achievement in itself? These questions situate us smack dab in the middle of the aridity of the postmodern desert, in – as our friends in Colectivo Situaciones say – the ontological reality of dispersion (social, temporal-spacial, subjective). And they led us immediately to others: How can common will be produced in a world of dispersion? How might we measure the effectiveness of the articulation between thought and politics when the very criteria of efficacy and of growth that characterized older political models doesn’t work for us anymore? How might we measure these things without falling into smugness and/or resignation?

The response to these questions can only be immanent, situated. From what we are, we say: we believe its worthwhile to speak and act from within dispersion, not to take refuge in the salvation of little identities, in calming groups or in worn-out ideologies, but rather to dare to cross the desert with our eyes wide open. Because, as Deleuze tells us, “The sand desert not only implies oases, which are like fixed points, but also rhizomatic vegetation, temporary and mobile as a function of local rains, which change the orientation of trajectories.” And what is more, because this is our habitat and our condition and it is the challenge of political life in the present, and whatever we are capable of saying and doing from within that will have unexpected resonances.

On the other hand, we know that dispersion is not necessarily impotence, the impossibility of a common will. We experienced it on March 13th 2004 in Madrid, in Barcelona and in so many other cities: after the terrible bombings of March 11th, the indignation which arose from the conjunction of fear, lies and death turned that dispersion into a determined swarm and into a mourning which interrupted the circulation of the principal urban arteries for more than ten hours. The experiments in cities all over the world when, with the announcement of the first bombings over Iraq, millions of people took to the streets, in some places causing normalcy to collapse for three consecutive days. We have experienced this on a more local level all over Europe, with the various cycles of student movements, with the struggles of the unemployed and the intermittent workers, with the public interruptions of people without papers in repeated lock-ins and occupations, as a space-time rupture of revolt within a subsumed daily life. Perhaps the paradox of our times consists precisely in the fact that, after being a swarm, the bees disperse themselves again. Moreover, we can demonstrate the dimension and extent of contemporary dispersion when we see how the same person who has participated actively in the swarm, that same person who has cut streets and has shouted at the top of her lungs “Politics is ours!” then goes back to her workplace as a normalized subject: here dispersion means a radical discontinuity between the different identities which each individual adopts in the different locations which she occupies. But this fact takes nothing from the power of the swarm, nor does it make it any less real. It just requires that we think and act from within dispersion with greater radicalism. And that we do so without illusions or sleight of hand. In this sense, believing that activist research might provide a solution (or be the solution) to dispersion is a terrible illusion. It may perhaps be a way within/through dispersion: in order to transit it, analyzing its material and subjective bases, interrogating its interstices, defining hypotheses of political experimentation; in order to counteract it, detecting points of blockage and of strength in the practices which inhabit it, working on them, composing them, weaving affective-linguistic territorialities between those of us who no longer can count on a priori territories.

We think we’ve made it clear, but perhaps its appropriate to insist: the dispersion of which we speak, the dispersion which our precarized bodies experience in the metropoloi of the center of the world-economy, is a dispersion driven by acceleration and hyper-activation, in a space – the postmodern space – in which everything moves at great velocity and where, nonetheless, basically nothing happens: hence the desert. In this context, decision takes on a crucial importance for those who are indignant, who do not resign themselves, and who rebel: decision as a way of determining “this way” (this way: to walk, to ask, to act, to organize), a desire which insists and, by insisting, allows a rupture to be made with the acceleration of the postmodern experience. Decision not as will or willfulness but as a subjective tension. Decision as the raw material for a new politics of desire which presents itself, insistent, in the search for new worlds. And here we might say: the activist is that person who is run through by such a decision. And activist research is that process of reappropiation of our capacity to create worlds which, pushed by an obstinate activist decision that neither the ‘a priori’ nor the ‘how it should be’ nor the political models (old or new) are valid, interrogates, problematizes and pushes the real through a series of concrete procedures.

With this we arrive once again to the question of the criteria of effectiveness in relation to the dynamic between thought and political action. What shall we say? There is no doubt that these must not be dictated by the urgency and the impatience of that kind of activist subjectivity which dreams of overturning the entirety of a compact mass. The contemporary common can be nothing other than that which is threaded through with a permanent tension of desire for singularity, it can be none other than a common spoken from multiplicity: the common of the swarm, the common of Seattle, Buenos Aires and Madrid. Against this kind of hurry, which submits experiences of research-action to a vain tension, but also against all tendency towards becoming dilettante and against all kinds of postmodern ecstasy, it is necessary to construct our own criteria, which are interior to the process itself, attentive to the real operations of modification (material and subjective), faithful to the searches, questions and demands which organize it, which should in turn be interrogated and renovated again and again.

From some place in the metropolis of Madrid

Women of Precarias a la deriva

May 2004

translation by Maggie Schmitt

*This text initially appeared in Nociones Comunes: Experiences y Ensayos entre Investigación y Militancia. ed. Marta Malo de Molina. Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid, 2004.*