Healthy Communalism

23 Jun 2022 | Alex Head - Berlin, Germany

Exploring WTN in relationship to new book RICOCHET - CULTURAL EPIGENETICS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF CHANGE (2021) on Ljå Forlag (Olso)

I refer here to communal, group activities and not the libertarian communalism of Murray Bookchin nor the sectarian communalism of divided tribes. Though these will surely resurface as meaningful topics of investigation in due course.

. . .

So many of the projects that I have grounded and become involved in replicate a logic that can be found in Wasteland Twinning Network: create the connecting tissue between cultural niches and in so doing establish networks of feedback and, crucially, audiences. In this article I will explore some of the achievements and shortfalls of the Wasteland Twinning project as I see them, while exploring some of the ideas set out in my new book Ricochet.

Amongst a lot of the work documented on this website can be found a certain joy in the coming together of persons, a healthy, if not always tranquil communalism developed through art as research (or knowledge production: poetry, games event, semaphore, publication, soundscape, you name it).

Today I find myself driving at new forms of communal gathering and sharing. In prosaic terms: I do miss people. But over the long term this is more than simply a nostalgia for immersion within the social body, there is a politic to my work and I am genuinely interested in non-hierarchical forms of collective organisation (after all).  

I was recently invited to an event by Bristol Queerants, a queer/feminist reading group in which we discussed and dissected differing forms of queer and communist solidarities as promoted by thinkers such as Mario Mieli, Silvia Federici, Christopher Chitty and others. One of the outcomes from the evening for me, was recognising something that I think I have always inherently believed, that the greatest acts of solidarity are often not loud public exclamations but the slick, subtle support one receives from ones peers indirectly. Praise passed on third hand or sometimes just showing up. Perhaps these are other forms of healthy communalism or indirect collective action.

Despite an appreciation for more subtle forms of promotion and self promotion, here I am writing a public blog post.

Plug 1:  I’ll get the plug out of the way before focusing my thoughts on the current struggles among emergent solidarities (queer among them), what this has to do with networked research and what I think that research could look like in the near future of 2022-23.

I have been lucky enough to give a number of book launch events for Ricochet, Cultural Epigenetics and the Philosophy of Change and I will continue to edit them down to more easily consumable, shortened versions while keeping the full length talks and discussions online.

Here is the seven minute version of the final talk in this short series with artist Alice Creischer, who was also my MA professor with partner Andreas Siekmann, at Weißensee, speaking with me at Hopscotch Reading Room in late March in Berlin.

There is a lot to unpack there. To begin with Hopscotch aims “to expand and deepen the experience of the non-western world in the realms of discourse and literature.” and therefore focusses primarily on Black, Indigenous People of Colour or non-white authors and experiences. Clearly neither Creischer nor I are attempting to speak from those lived experiences but rather, if I may, write and create without barriers to what counts as knowledge, and what not - particularly with regards to the knowledge production of the Global North and South. In any case such distinctions are usually far more complex in today's world.

Secondly, what the hell is Cultural Epigenetics? And what might that have to do with emergent/queer solidarities?

Despite what could be a complicated sounding phrase, cultural epigenetics can be described fairly easily.

In biology the epigenome are sets of chemical tags that sit on top of -epi a living organism’s genes. The epigenome, so it has been discovered since the sequencing of the human genome, act as a series of switches that turn different forms of cell reproduction on and off.

Different environmental factors trigger these switches over medium to long term periods of time, typically between months and years. Crucially, though I will inherit epigenetic tags from my parents it is my environment and life journey that determines which of them will be switched on or off. I may inherit a propensity for a type of cell behaviour or habit but it is my own existence that decides whether that habit or behaviour develops into a long term one.

One environmental factor that turns on the epigenetic tag for flowering in a plant for example, is temperature.

For humans environmental factors could be a healthy or unhealthy diet, living next to a motorway or stress.

Epigenetics presents another way to understand the relationships between our environment and the deep inner workings of our body’s cells. 

As an artist I am interested in the role and function of the cultural object in the broadest sense.

One definition of cultural epigenetics is tied up with the work of Eva Jablonka who draws correlations between a culture’s dietary habits and the marks those habits leave on the genome and epigenome of persons in that culture.

Because stress is literally linked to the creation of unhealthy cells in an organism’s body, in my approach, I have also politicised cultural epigenetics as a way to understand the removal of public monuments/statues to racist, genocidal traders of enslaved persons in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

I.e, where a cultural object traumatises the public, its removal by public force or argument is, I argue, an act by which that society or social group intervenes within and resets its cultural epigenome. Precisely in the manner that occurred here, from were I am now writing and living, in Bristol UK, when 10,000 persons toppled the Colston statue in 2020. There remain at the time of writing at least 3 additional statues to Colston standing in Bristol. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Cultural epigenetics is something one lives through. In this sense I don’t think of it as theoretical but rather biological. To me this implies that cultural epigenetics is also a realm of material philosophy. This is because although the field does rely in theoretical speculation at this stage, microscopic genes are nonetheless objectively real in my material universe. They can be studied and one can draw both material-political and philosophical-theoretical conclusions.

My own material philosophy, after Karl Marx’s Historical Materialism, but also Silvia Federici and Hannah Arendt (though Arendt described herself as more of a political analyst), is concerned with the point at which the tire hits the track in the realm of political thought. That doesn’t mean that I do not or can not believe in a god or that I have no relation to the realm of the spiritual. On the contrary, ideally, when I die I will also still believe in materialism but simply see it from another perspective.

I am here, now, housed in the shell that I was born into. It’s not just that I think, it is me because I act and because I act in a certain set of ways an not others.

Without thought there could be no ethical structures with which to agree on and implement protections for persons and planet. No plan. In short nothing to organise around. Yet thought detached from action creates a person robbed of their meaning in this world.

Those unable to work from home or disappear into a state-funded project or work during a global pandemic have had to face a world robbed of meaning in a completely different material and physiological sense.

As I learn to adapt to that new world and as I see others around me also doing, there is both the body blow of loss coupled to the generative force of spring. In short there has been a lot of awful, lonely, painful deaths that need to be acknowledged and not simply swept under the carpet as most governments would prefer. Forgetting their incompentencies, inaccuracies and profiteering is not an option.  

The pattern of elite preservation through privatised medicines during the ongoing HIV-AIDS epidemic are all to discernible today’s Sars-Covid-19 pandemic. 

Whether during a global health emergency (that is recognised a such) or not, isolation engenders an overbearing emphasis on our internal worlds.

One could argue that from the perspective of the individual fantasy takes hold. If the isolated experience is driven actually by loneliness, an inability to express a part of oneself, it can be that reality itself no longer seems to fit with one’s expectations. Encountering a world in which one’s desires do not accurately fit onto the given templates available is jarring to say the least. People’s mind whirr.

When users of the internet become isolated from a healthy range of opinions and the contradictions of lived experience they seem to lash out, forging titles and tags for one another. The question of who has actual power and of which kind, something that real eye contact conveys like no other - is lost.

But more than that, as journalist and author Shon Faye recently stated at her public launch of the paperback issue of The Transgender Issue (also in Bristol), Feminism (for example, though one could say Gay Rights or Black Power movements) are projects of liberation. What forming a political position around an identification with one’s ethnic, gender or sexual orientation can come to tragically forget, as in the case of the Gender-Critical feminist, is that forming such an identitarian position should never place those particular needs above another marginalised group’s own liberation.     

As we discussed in the talk at Hopscotch, Berlin, above, masses of isolated persons can of course become mobilised into large public ‘movements’ of social actors and, with enough fervour, alter the path of history.

Like participatory artworks a flash mob can be seen as a form of hysterical immersion in the social body. You could give me the regular commitment of Fridays for Future, except that I’m not sure how much solidarity typically occurs there? From the FF events I’ve attended in Berlin it, they looked pretty homogeneous to me.

But I want to think with and focus on solidarities across the empty space of isolation, rather than solidarities as momentary antidotes that spring up from time to time.

A central quote from Hannah Arendt that I included in Ricochet and which Creischer and I both returned to in the talk at Hopscotch outlines my entry point for exploring the idea of emergent solidarities:

Isolation and loneliness are not the same. I can be isolated – that is in a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody to act with me – without being lonely; and I can be lonely – that is in a situation in which I as a person feel deserted of all human companionship – without being isolated.

Isolation is that impasse into which men are driven when the political sphere of their lives, where they act together in the pursuit of a common concern, is destroyed.

- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p623

Were, for example the January 6th rioters and insurrectionists isolated in the sense that they had no-one to act with? Not really. Were they lonely - deserted of all human companionship? Rarely.

The cult of the 45th President of the United States does exist in a world however in which they have been taught to believe that the political sphere of their lives has been destroyed. In a sense they are correct. The greatest form of isolation is clearly between their thoughts and fantasies, and reality.

I have certainly not wasted any of my time speaking to the Far Right for some years however.

. . .

My own pansexual understanding and experience of life has indeed isolated and brought me great loneliness at times over the years. In so far as queerness is an act or state of being adjacent to or in rejection of the heteronormative, it has also brought me a (somewhat delayed) joy, a healthy communalism.

Indeed, my philosophy is one based on the very idea that positive change is possible precisely because I have been in a position to enact changes in my personal life in response to a better understanding of my sexuality. The two things are inextricably interlinked for me, meshed or networked as planes of understanding and existential reality.

Though I have been lonely in my own self as a part of this process, I have not been isolated when there have been supportive actors in my life.

To follow Arendt’s thesis, I have sought and created isolation within my socio-economic and physical life - withdrawing from my artistic practice per se to the Czech countryside for months on end to read and write - without loneliness, as I have always had the support of my partner and the implicit support of my publisher (and colleagues). 

The problem with working out how to withdraw and focus deeply on a project in isolation is that you have to unlearn that behaviour to become sociable again. The recent kick back into action has made me think about something that is actually absent from my book Ricochet: the necessity of communalism as a means of coping and survival. 

Healthy communalism is therefore about the biological health benefits of acting together in solidarity. After all there are few things in the world less political that healthcare. When oppressive power divides us - a process called schismogenesis (to borrow from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow) - it keeps us weak.

Epigenetics and cultural epigenetics demonstrates that when we act together we are literally, biologically (as well as politically, materially and psychologically) stronger humans. The opposite of healthy communalism would simply be no communalism at all. That doesn’t mean one should live in a state of constant communalism if they do not want, but it implies that, as I think it has been well demonstrated, that everyone isolated from everyone, all of the time, is hellish.

From singing in a group to watching events as a crowd, communal experience has been highlighted as therapeutic. In my forthcoming research I would therefore like to explore the impact of collective action upon our epigenome/s and the roles that culture plays in these processes.

In Ricochet, Cultural Epigenetics and the Philosophy of Change, chapter 7, I set out my ideas around cultural production as a form of cultural mutation. I use the practices of radio and podcast makers who explore their environment collecting and editing sounds in order to submit sonic outcomes to a central radio-broadcasting hub. Here another series of selections or curation takes place giving me a clear analogy with Darwin’s theory of biological evolution as adaptation with variation. (A brilliant sound artist that works explicitly in this way is AGF - poemproducer - Antye Greie-Ripatti.)

Radio makers are cast as cultural foragers scouring the (cultural) landscape for social texture and content. And this is the context within which I bring in the Wasteland Twinning Network. Perhaps WTN came to a stop because it was and would have been substantiated by a lot of interaction online rather than irl.  

Wasteland Twinning proposed a network of interacting agents - in solidarity. The brutal reality is that that goal failed and that it failed partly because I let it fail and partly because others let it fail also. 

But the project - I hope - never did damage to the solidarity and shared labour of which it is composed. And in this way I hope that it remains a source of inspiration and use for visitors.

The project is especially important to me as it helped me to define my practice of working with differentiated groups of people, bringing threads between them together into an artistic outcome such as the sound design for a piece of theatre, a radio show, gambling tattoo casino, or a book. 

Perhaps, what Wasteland Twinning Network deserves, as an act of closure to that period and work, is a publication all of its own?

Books can be intersectional in so far as they can intertwine multiple claims and concerns across marginalised groups. Books can open doorways while performing as a landing pad for actions, actors and ideas. The critical question is simply, for whom?

For whom was one of, if not the primary question during the founding years of WTN. For whom is this a wasteland, for whom shall it be built upon? Now that concrete and stone has almost entirely replaced the liminal sites of formal and informal recreation WTN brought into dialogue, the question of for whom is less urgent until one recognises its resource with the affordable housing crisis worldwide.

Clearly acts of solidarity aren’t in an either/or dynamic caught between interaction off and online. To echo Faye again, one of the challenges of making part of someone else’s struggle as important as your own is the inevitable discomfort that will generate.

If one of the problems for WTN was that it became about posting project content in the form of outcomes, and lost the element of a shared journey irl, perhaps there is something to learn from that for future projects. The increase in migrants and refugees entering into Europe, rising heat across the globe and myriad other material circumstances inevitable drew contributors attentions elsewhere.

In other words, the world simply moved on.  

But the polymorphous multiple temporalities of the project continue.

The immediate future, or within 5 to 10 to 15 years, depending only on how insulated one is from the concomitant climate and infrastructural crises, will demand, have already begin to demand an adjustment to new, sometimes uncomfortable allyships.

The lessons of solidarity structures from the past demonstrate as much. For example when women pirates had to deal with their misogynistic male counterparts during the Golden Age of Pirating between the 1650s and 1730s across the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, the Indian Ocean, North America, and West Africa. If happiness is about being loved by the persons one loves, and respected by the persons one respects, how can you me and she strive to remain well adjusted personalities as the world around us goes through a seismic change? Because it isn’t all doom, we are traveling backwards both politically and economically and therefore in terms of rights, but, (which explains the nausea), humans continue to travel forwards also.

I travel forwards towards death for example. But technologically and from the point of view of understanding the known universe/s there are no end of mind boggling progressions, weekly.

Humanity is going round a bend. It feels as though the North American author Don DeLillo’s prophetic words are coming true: the future belongs to crowds.

In order to make sense of this the only option is to organise ourselves into resilient networks of support. This is not only the hottest summer of your life. This is the coolest summer you are going to experience for the rest of your time on earth.

To paraphrase Public Enemy, if it takes ‘a nation of millions to hold (certain folks) back’, imagine what we can achieve in the precise historical moment between the old system falling into ruin and the same reactionary forces attempting to rebuild that same dysfunctional and exploitative fascistic-capitalist world anew. For they will certainly try until a different crowd is able to absorb them not by changing the definition of the problems at hand but by making better argument for how to solve them.

. . .

Ricochet on Ljå Forlag, is a work of history, art and biology that is explained in detail through over 100 graphic elements developed with the artist Jørn Aargaard. It is 304 pages, full colour and offset printed including sources from contemporary and ancient historical records. Among other culturally silenced artefacts, it connects the history of the sacred date palm tree from the tenth millennium to the German Secret Service building of 2016.

Ljå Forlag 2021

ISBN: 978-82-999761-6-9

Additional links:

The Transgender Issue | Shon Faye

Sexual Hegemony | Christopher Chitty

Social Collapse Best Practices | Dmitry Orlov

The many-Headed Hydra | Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker

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