Always Incomplete: A Mixtape after Moten and Harney
by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten
Published June 2021
Listen to the Always Incomplete playlist.
A mixtape is an intimate form of address. It is a compilation of songs that might index a feeling, an attachment, a relation, a concept. It is something that might be passed from hand to hand, circulating by way of affinity or crush. A mixtape is made to be shared. This essay takes the form of a mixtape, songs compiled in response to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s All Incomplete. My readings of these songs are offered as a way of thinking with, and through, the book.
I have long been obsessed with ‘Pink Matter’ by Frank Ocean, a song that has a drawn-out opening where Ocean’s voice floats across a repeated, single-line guitar riff and keyboard chords that land on every beat. Every few bars a strange sample of voices shouting elaborates the beat, at first doubling it before getting ever so slightly out of sync. Strings add a certain thickness to the track’s texture: rising and falling, dropping away abruptly, returning again. You hear the barking of a dog (the singer’s Bernese Mountain dog Everest) buried somewhere in the mix from time to time. The song captures the feeling of summer: slow, heavy, hot, unbearably sexy. This seasonal association is confirmed in the opening seconds of the song with Ocean invoking the sensual pleasure of summer fruits with a spoken lyric: ‘And the peaches and the mangoes that you could sell for me’. When he starts singing, his voice drifts across the slow groove, often sitting just behind the beat in a way that feels as if the track is being stretched like an elastic pulled almost to breaking point.
‘Pink Matter’ is a mash-up of pop philosophy and pop culture: Cartesian dualism segues into anime references; pondering alien life gives way to existential ruminations. ‘What do you think my brain is made for / Is it just a container for the mind?’ asks Ocean in the song’s opening lines. The question restages both a history of philosophical inquiry and stoner conversations: is experience defined by a rigid distinction between mind and matter? For Enlightenment thinkers, the principles of dualism were developed into a conception of subjectivity governed by moral and categorical imperatives that exist beyond experience and so must be taken as a priori truths deduced through reason. The capacity to reason marked the Enlightenment subject as transcendental, universal, and singular rather than immanent, particular, and plural. The history of this subject is also a history of racialisation, with dualism providing the ground for a theory of possession from which both the rational subject and the racialised other emerge. The disembodied universal that is the transcendental subject is given shape when pitted against the racialised and gendered other who is presumed to lack the capacity to self-possess and so is excluded from both the category of the human and the political sphere that accompanies this category. The self-possessed individual is defined against the negation of Blackness and Indigeneity, a move which relies on an a priori assertion of the supremacy of whiteness and the justification of supremacy through legal and philosophical discourse. This discursive chain establishes, as Cheryl Harris has argued, an actual property interest in whiteness itself where property is understood as a metaphysical rather simply physical – a right rather than a thing or a right that might take the shape of a thing.
‘From the outset,’ write Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, ‘the ability to own – and that ability’s first derivative, self-possession – is entwined with the ability to make more productive’. The racialised conception of subjectivity – the figure of ‘Man’ – is arrived at through a chain of reasoning that links individuated ownership to improvement. It was the English jurist John Locke who famously posited that possession arose from mixing one’s labour with the earth in order to increase the land’s productivity (a principle that underpins the dispossessive violence of colonisation that is incompletely captured by the phrase terra nullius). In order to be improved, land had to be reduced to quantifiable productivity, which commonly involved forms of speciation that we would now call monocropping. The development of the self-possessed individual and ownership of land are coterminous; the concept of self-possession is indebted to a Lockean idea of possession-by-improvement that was developed in relation to land tenure while simultaneously functioning as the necessary precondition for any possessive claim over land or object. As such, the self-possessed individual must also be governed by the logic of improvement and the compulsion to increase productivity. Moten and Harney elaborate on this entanglement of racialisation, possession, and domination:
In this regard, (necessarily European) man, in and as the exception, imposes speciation upon himself, in an operation that extracts and excerpts himself from the earth in order to confirm his supposed dominion over it. And just as the earth must be forcefully speciated to be possessed, man must forcefully speciate himself in order to enact this kind of possession. This is to say that racialization is present in the very idea of domination over the earth; in the very idea and enactment of the exception; in the very nuts and bolts of possession-by-improvement.
Racialisation is foundational to modern Western thought and experience. The shifting process of separating people according to group-based difference, that is, the ascription of race, is present in the idea of enclosing and possessing the earth. Race is not an ontological or biological category, despite the ongoing attempts to render it fixed that are found in the discourses of ‘scientific’ racism that continue to haunt our present. Nor is it something that emerges from the capitalist mode of production but rather, as Moten and Harney, by way of Cedric Robinson, show us, racialisation emerges co-constitutively with capitalism, a necessary condition for the flourishing of exploitation inherent to capitalist reproduction. The process of speciation that enables domination over the earth is malleable, involving the production and reproduction of ascriptive differences that shift over time in order to satisfy the unquenchable drive to increase productivity and the corresponding regimes of accumulation. For the individual, transcendental subject that emerges from this process of speciation – those who are deemed to possess the capacity for continual improvement – identity and property relations become fused through the juridical concept of status and the moral apparatus of rights. On the other hand, those racialised subjects presumed to lack the capacity to self-possess and therefore also the capacity to improve, are excluded from the sphere of humanity or coercively and conditionally brought within it. The question Ocean poses – ‘What do you think my brain is made for / Is it just a container for the mind?’ – contains a loose thread that when tugged unravels a history of possession and individuation, dispossession and subjugation. But like all prophets, he doesn’t leave the question unanswered. His response, drawing out the syllables in a melismatic performance that captures the shattering mixture of compulsion, suspension, and urgency that marks desire: ‘My god, giving me pleasure / Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure / Pleasure over matter.’ The end of phrase coincides with the bass drop, the release of tension that has been building for almost two and half minutes. It’s a sublime moment in pop music.
What does it mean to affirm pleasure over matter? Most obviously the song adheres to the genre conventions of R&B, a genre where pleasure and sex and desire are what songs are often explicitly about. But perhaps such songs suggest something about the radical potentiality of pleasure as well. ‘Pink Matter’ makes this latent potentiality explicit: Ocean’s declaration that pleasure trumps matter can be read as refusal to accept the terms of a world structured by dualism – a refusal of mind-body splits, of individuated subjects, of possession-by-improvement. ‘From the first moment, which appears to keep happening all the time, all property is posited, beginning with the positing/positioning of a body for locating ownership, and the owned, and a mind for owning’, write Moten and Harney. The modern subject cannot be thought outside of the violence of colonisation and racialisation as the expropriation of land requires the expropriation of the interiority of the racialised other, an interiority that is suppositionally taken to be an exclusive property of the European ‘Man’. ‘The first theft shows up as rightful ownership’, Moten and Harney tell us. ‘This is the theft of fleshly, earth(l)y life, which is then incarcerated in the body.’ The body, in other words, is not merely matter but a construction inseparably tied to the individuated self. ‘The body is just an overseer, a factor, a superintendent for the real landlord, the real owner, the individual, in his noxious, heavy-handed conceptuality’. I read Ocean’s affirmation of pleasure not as affirmation of the bod(il)y but of flesh which, as Hortense Spillers teaches us, is that which precedes the body and so escapes and refuses the racialising grammar the individuated body implies.
The gesture of refusal in ‘Pink Matter’ is active. It is not merely a negation but a pivot from refusal to possibility, from pessimism to operationalism (to borrow a concept that Moten develops in his essay ‘Black Op’). The rejection of the mind/body problem and the affirmation of flesh is at once the insistence that property remains vulnerable to sharing, that there is an excess that escapes the violent regimes (economic, juridical, and philosophical) that uphold and reproduce private ownership. Flesh reminds us of the historical contingency of the world we inhabit, it remains, as Moten has put it, both ante- and anti-racial capitalism. Flesh is a condition for the existence of an individuated subject that is positioned in a body and yet is unable to be reduced to this figure. The affirmation of flesh reminds us that a different future is possible.
The excess that spills forth from Ocean when he repeatedly intones the word pleasure reminds me of a line from Moten’s long poem ‘block chapel’: ‘communism is how you get nasty with enjoyment.’ Of course, the communism that Moten has in mind has nothing to do with the twentieth-century projects that took that name, which would more accurately be described as state capitalism, but rather with the promise of another world in which everyone has access to things they need, where we remain vulnerable to sharing and so in turn can share in the needs of everyone. So when Moten writes of the getting nasty with enjoyment, or Ocean sings of pleasure, both are speaking to a kind of excess and abundance – of matter, feeling, embrace, sensation, intimacy, imagination – that moves directly against the misery of capital and the value form and the individual. To dwell in the pleasure of the song or the poem is to take seriously the role that pleasure might play in the making of a different world. The accumulation of pleasure must be a central question in any consideration of what revolution looks and feels like, rather than something to be tackled in its wake. Crucially, the accumulation of pleasure depends on the abolition of the individual and order this figure implies.
What is the rhythm of our shared togetherness? And how can we find our way back to it? Or rather, how can we cultivate this rhythm in order that we might keep dancing a little longer? The exploration of such questions is at the heart of All Incomplete, in which Moten and Harney extend and develop many of the ideas presented in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Another way to stage the question at the heart of the book, and to which the authors offer an incomplete answer, is to ask: What is it to refuse to move to the metronomic beat of continual improvement? That beat is the violent rhythm of possession-by-individuation, of which they write:
There is a rhythm making the world, and the space and time this rhythm beats out invites individuation in this world. […] It is the rhythm of commodity production by commodities, internally disrupted at its origin. The first beat renders each commodity separate, bordered, isolated from the next. The second beat renders every thing equal to every other thing. The first beat makes every thing discrete. The second beat makes everything the same. Time and space order this rhythm, and are ordered by it. This is a settler rhythm, this one-two of capitalist production, a rhythm of citizen and subject, of dividuation and individuation, of genocide and law. It sounds out by expropriating any other movement of the beat. It asserts that nothing else can be heard, that nothing else need be felt. It is in short a killing rhythm.
The dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson identifies the same killing rhythm that Moten and Harney describe in his deep, almost monotonal chant that opens ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’, the final song of the classic 1979 album Dread Beat an’ Blood by Johnson’s outfit, Poet and the Roots. ‘War … war …’ he sings, elongating the word over a bass-heavy reggae groove and a minor-key piano accompaniment that wanders freely through the track, weaving its way around the vocal. Johnson, a Jamaican-born poet of the Black radical tradition who migrated to the Afro-Caribbean neighborhood of Brixton in the south of London as a boy in 1963, sings of a war of racial oppression, police violence, and the coming of neoliberal austerity:
of di truncheon
an doze nites
of melancholy locked in a cell
doze hours of torture touchin hell
doze blows dat caused my heart to swell
When Johnson stretches out the word ‘war’, perhaps it is to show us just how capacious a term it is, a war waged across the interlocking vectors of race, gender, and class that encompasses material, affective, and psychic violence. A war that has borne many names: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terror. With each renewal of this inexhaustible war comes the reaffirmation of a commitment to disciplinary measures that promise immediate action. The intensification of racialised policing and mass incarceration come to replace social welfare programs as capital is restructured through the ideological tenets of neoliberalism that include increased privatisation, the deregulation of markets and their increasingly global integration, the imposition of austerity, and a shift to a rhetoric of personal responsibility. Johnson, singing in 1979 as the repercussions of the global oil crisis of 1973 were starting to be felt and as the neoliberal rule of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was just commencing, is singing not only of an ongoing war but of what Antonio Negri described in 1980 as the ‘transition from “welfare” to “warfare” state’. Here the state is restructured according to an ideology of scarcity and the idea of imminent threat. State spending, as advocates of ‘free’ market economics would have us believe, does not actually shrink but is merely redirected away from social welfare programs and into the repressive arms of the state: police, prisons, military. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes this sleight of hand as the ‘anti-state state’, a term she deploys to describe an ideological commitment to minimal state intervention that cloaks the increasing entanglement between state and market.
The truncheon and the cell cannot be detached from possession-by-improvement and the expropriation of interiority that underpins this juridical-philosophical construction. The neoliberal structuring of the state involves a return to principles of classical liberalism in which the self-possessed individual is taken to be the basis of all social and political relations, and the role of government is to ensure individual liberty and economic opportunity. Neoliberalism is an intensification of these principles, the articulation of an order where the market determines all relations between individuals and the state recedes into the background. Think of Thatcher’s famous proclamation: ‘There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.’ In reality, the state continues to mediate the social sphere albeit in increasingly coercive ways. The neoliberal notion of small government remains something of fantasy that masks a redistributive politics that deprioritises state welfare in order to bolster warfare programs. Here a continuum can be traced between forms of violent coercion, such as policing and incarceration, and techniques of production and management concerned with the enclosure of the social, such as financialisation and privatisation, logistics and professionalisation. War, as Johnson knows, takes many forms.
‘Logistics,’ as Jasper Bernes has succinctly written, ‘is war by other means, war by means of trade.’ Rendered in these terms, logistics does not simply describe the movement of commodities but the control of the flow of commodities. Efficiency and improvement, cornerstones of the contemporary ‘logistics revolution’ in which production has been transformed according to the conditions of circulation, is ultimately an attempt to dominate time and space. The killing rhythm, the beat of war, is the patterning of logistics, the science of capitalism. ‘Modern logistics’, Moten and Harney explain in The Undercommons, ‘is founded with the first great movement of commodities, the ones that could speak’. This linking of modern, that is commercial, logistics to the Atlantic slave trade makes clear that ‘war by means of trade’ is waged on our species being through the violent imposition of racialisation. At the core of it, Stefano Harney tells us, ‘modern logistics is not just about how to transport large amounts of commodities or information or energy, or even how to move these efficiently, but also about the sociopathic demand for access: topographical, jurisdictional, but as importantly bodily and social access.’ This enclosure of the bodily and the social is another way of articulating the privatisation of the social individual or the subordination of the social to the regime of private property.
In All Incomplete, Moten and Harney pick up a critique they began in The Undercommons:
Logistics would seem to value means over ends – everything is how to get it there, not what it is – but logistics is really the degradation of means, the general devaluation of means through individuation and privatization, which are the same thing.
Logistics, they tell us, is a science of loss where what is lost is sharing itself. The mass movement of commodities follows on the heels of the privatisation of property but more than this it describes a colonising drive ‘where properties are imported into empty space’. Here we are again returned to the spatio-temporal relation implied by the entanglement between private property and Enlightenment interiority. The claiming of possession must be located in both space and time, something that logistics makes possible.
Space emerges as the delimitation of what is mine, and time begins with the theft and imposition when it became mine. The individual mind and its coming to maturity out of the tabula rasa mark this first conquest. Enlightenment interiority emerged from this emplotment of time and space […] this separation from what is shared.
Modern logistics might best be understood as a mode of rationalisation in which the enclosure and narrativisation of time and space enable the logic of possession-by-improvement to be forcefully advanced. ‘Logistics aims to straighten us out, untangle us, and open us to its usufruct, its improving use; such access to us, in its turn, improves the flow line, the straight line’, Moten and Harney warn. ‘And what logistics takes to be the shortest distance between us requires emplotting us as bodies in space where interiority can be imposed even as the capacity for interiority can be denied, in the constant measure and regulation of flesh and earth’. The war rhythm is the capture of time and space over and over and over again.
But the killing rhythm is not only the rhythm. There is a counter-rhythm that sounds before, and against, the rhythm of individuation and capitalist production. Johnson knows this and he sings not only of war waged on our species-being (as it manifests in the violence of market and the cops and the state), but of the fight against it was well:
war …. war …
mi seh lissen
hear what I say if yu can
a grievous blow fi blow
The call to listen is, of course, an articulation of resistance, a warning to the oppressor that every blow can be matched. Yet Johnson’s lyrics are not simply a response to the threat of violence but a call to defend what Moten and Harney would call our undercommon sociality, something best described as a shared attachment to sharing, ‘a commitment against the idea of society itself’. In ‘All Wi Doin is Defendin’, Johnson sings of the defense of a fugitive excess that marks the subject as always incomplete and therefore open to sharing. What is being defended is our capacity to assemble, not as the doubly ‘free’ individuals that Marx described – those who are compelled to sell our privatised capacity in order for capitalist reproduction to take place, nor as the unfree, enslaved subjects that such a mode of production has always relied upon – but rather as those who ‘consent to no longer be a single being’, as Édouard Glissant phrases it. Johnson articulates a counter-rhythm that cannot be stilled despite the ongoing attempts to do so:
can do is bring
passion to di heights of eruption
an songs of fire wi will sing
The counter-rhythm is a rhythm of passion, a rhythm that contains an ever-present, if sometimes latent, quality that surges forth at certain moments to overwhelm the current order of things. The riot is one form that this irruption of passion can take, an expression of self-defense that momentarily interrupts the supremacy of private property and value. But the riot is a crystallisation of what Moten and Harney call ‘the general antagonism’ which is a concept that describes irreducible difference without separation. For Moten and Harney, such difference exists underneath the level of the individual and underneath a politics that positions such a figure at its core. It also exists underneath forms of politics that are articulated only in opposition to any politics that begins with the individual and relations between individuals. The general antagonism speaks to something that moves in excess of this paradigm, a rhythm of fugitivity that serves as the basis for an undercommon sociality.
This is the rhythm Martha and Vandellas move to, the rhythm that moves through their 1964 hit ‘Dancing in the Street’, a song I have been listening to, and writing about, with Astrid Lorange in work that explores the poetics of the riot. As soon as we hear the baritone saxophone fall into that first, heavy downbeat, we know the song is a party. It’s a party that knows no borders, a party that adheres only to a beat that refuses separation. Martha Reeves begins: ‘Callin’ out around the world / Are you ready for a brand new beat?’ One might read the question as a restaging of that classic gesture that we find in both pop music and the avant-garde, the announcement that what is being done here has never been done before, that what we are witnessing is a radical break with history itself. But that would be to misread the song and its strange temporal logic. The song announces an imminent future – ‘They’ll be dancing (dancing in the street)’ – before immediately reminding us that this future is already happening – ‘They’re dancing in the street / Dancing in the street’. This movement between present and future tense also implies a movement backwards in time, suggesting perhaps that the dancing has never stopped and that the brand new beat is the same old beat of the general antagonism that continuously forms and reforms itself in order that we might continue dancing in the street. It is no surprise then that the song became an anthem of the Harlem riots that unfolded in the summer of 1964 in the wake of murder of 15-year-old James Powell by an NYPD lieutenant, nor that the song has remained closely linked with the riot as a particular form of uprising.
For Moten and Harney, the general antagonism that animates the dub poetics of Johnson dub or the summer party anthem of Martha and the Vandellas or the riot as an expression of self-defense can be understood in sonic and rhythmic terms as expressions of a beat that surrounds the killing rhythm of the settler, the war rhythm of the capitalist, the violent rhythm of individuation and expropriation. They write:
But this rhythm [the war rhythm] has always been set amidst, and beset by, the general antagonism, the cacophony of beats, lines, falsettos, and growls, of hips, feet, hands, of bells, chimes, and chants, an undercommon track. At the heart of its production is a certain indiscretion, a certain differentiation that will not separate, an unbordered consolation against isolation, a haptical resonance that makes possible and impossible this killing rhythm, the undercommon track that would remain fugitive from the emerging logistics of this deadly rhythm and exhaust it.
If logistics is one way of describing the rhythm of enclosure and separation, then logisticality is, for Moten and Harney, a way of understanding the emergence and cultivation of an undercommon rhythm that precedes and resists the logistical one. Logisticality describes a fugitive movement that disrupts the logic of logistics and yet cannot be separated from the violence of it. Logisticality reminds us that something evades and escapes the attempt to transform flesh into commodities that took place in the mass production process of the Atlantic slave trade. This is a lesson they take from Cedric Robinson who, in his remarkable historiography of the Black radical tradition, Black Marxism, writes of the impossibility of total deculturation. Despite the reduction of people to chattel and despite their forced dislocation from place and often kin, Robinson tells us that ‘critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality’ also traveled in the hold of the ship. A certain form of consciousness and sociality moved with those who were forcibly shipped under conditions of brutal duress. In The Undercommons, Moten puts it like this:
the one who is shipped is also a smuggler, carrying something – and what he carries is, first and foremost, a kind of radical, non-locatability. The point is, there’s a certain way of thinking about that impossibility of being located, of that exhaustion of location.
This exhaustion of location cannot be thought when detached from the scene of constraint and yet it offers a way of conceptualising a movement that refuses to be stilled, one that insists on the existence of an outside or, better still, an underneath that is not bound by the current terms of order. Another name for the exhaustion of location would be fugitivity, which not only describes a movement that disfigures the status quo in its relentless escape from the constraints set forth by property and individuation but insists on renewing a sociality that is based on the capacity to share in the here and now. This requires an embrace of what might be called the improvisational imperative, a willingness to find and follow the beat of the general antagonism in order that we might find our way back to a shared attachment to sharing.
If their logistics both assumes and dictates that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, what if our logisticality, before and against both assumption and dictation, improvises a shorter distance in curve – or not even in curve, but in kink? Kink is neither curve nor circle, much less line. Indeed, a kink is often said to be a block. And what is a collection of kinks, or a collective of kinks, if not a dread, or jam? Watch me? No, watch meh, motherfucker.
Is it the kink we are hearing in ‘Pink Matter’ when André 3000 bends time on one of the most understated guitar solos captured on record? Is it the kink we hear when Martha and the Vandellas suspend the linearity of time by invoking a present that has already sounded? The kink links the vibrancy of Lata Mangeshkar with the militancy of Linton Kwesi Johnson through the contact between enslaved Africans and indentured Hindu workers in the colony of Jamaica. The kink gives us the cosmic wandering of Alice Coltrane on her ‘Journey in Satchidananda’. If logistics is a science of loss, then logisticality might be something like a science of kinks. It is one crucial modality of an undercommon sociality that moves against society itself.
The undercommons makes reference to the older notion of the commons, those shared resources and relations that we might – as formally free yet alienated people – preserve and protect and manage. But the undercommons marks a radical departure from the commons, which has traditionally taken for granted the existence of the bourgeois individual, understanding access to common resources to be an expression of individuals-in-relation. By contrast, the undercommons takes the refusal of the individual as its departure point and therefore also refuses the notion of individuals-in-relation. The undercommons begins from ‘the assumption that we could ever be anything but already shared and already sharing’. Moten and Harney elaborate, ‘the undercommons is crucially about a sociality not based on the individual. Nor,’ they continue, ‘would we describe it as derivative of the individual – the undercommons is not about the dividual, or the pre-individual, or the supra-individual. The undercommons is an attachment, a sharedness, a diffunity, a partedness.’ The undercommons emerges from a shared yet differential acknowledgement of precarity, a commitment to the irreducible sociality of difference without separation. It is not a physical space but rather is a beat that moves beneath and through the public and the private and in doing so poses a disruption to spatial figures that liberal politics are organised around.
The undercommons, Moten and Harney teach us, is an attachment or an orientation to the fugitive movement that enables communistic togetherness. But what does such an orientation entail? Their answer:
To be undercommon is to live incomplete in the service of a shared incompletion, which acknowledges and insists upon the inoperative condition of the individual and the nation as these brutal and unsustainable fantasies and all of the material effects they generate oscillate in the ever-foreshortening interval between liberalism and fascism.
The undercommons then, as the title of this book gestures to, requires a commitment to incompletion. To refuse the enclosure of the self is to remain incomplete and therefore open to sharing and being shared. It is to consent to our own dispossession. Such a refusal offers us a way of imagining and practising a different way of organising the world. The primacy of the individual creates a link between liberalism and fascism which are co-existing rather than completely distinct forms of political organisation. ‘If fascism is back, as the common sense in Europe and the United States seems to insist, when did it go away?’ they ask. Their point is not disavow the particularity of fascism but rather to note that such things as: the apartheid regimes of Jim Crow or the current Israeli state; the ongoing violence of settler colonialism in places like Australia, Canada, and the United States; the imperialist interventions in places like Latin America, Indonesia, and the Congo, or the rise of mass incarceration alongside neoliberalism are all expressions of fascism that appeal to tenets of liberalism such as the protection of the individual and private property, free trade, the nation state, and the reproduction of capital. An attachment to incompletion insists that another mode of inhabiting the world is not only possible but already exists.
The title of this book – All Incomplete – is a nod to Cedric Robinson, who articulated ‘the principle of incompleteness’ in his celebration of improvised and decentralised forms of relation and social organisation, The Terms of Order. Robinson writes of the Ila-Tonga, ‘a Bantu-speaking people living largely in the Mazambuka District of Zambia’, a part of the world that was colonised by the British and known during that period as Northern Rhodesia. He notes that ‘the Tonga people are a people by kinship and descent’ but that they have long lived in the midst of other people with whom they share various cultural and language affiliations but who do not consider themselves Tonga. Robinson argues that this sharing of life – the coexistence of difference without separation – meant that the Tonga ‘did not develop centralized political organization’ or ‘networks of social and political machineries which would have made their demarcation convenient to those primarily familiar with European political history.’ He continues: ‘the Tonga have come into possession of an understanding of human organization which gives little prominence to the familiars of public-private, autonomy-subject, secret-shared, interest-exclusion oppositions.’ In the decentralisation of Tonga society, Robinson locates a principle of incompleteness that unsettles the ‘savage, monstrous monument of individualism whose strength was in its serene aloneness.’ Against the separation given by the figure of the individual and the centralised politics that preserve it, Robinson posits ‘a society which has woven into its matrix for the purpose of suspending and neutralizing those forces antithetic to individual autonomy, the constructed reality that all are equally incomplete.’ The undercommons can be understood as a call to generalise the principle of incompleteness that Robinson identified in the Tonga way of life. Or rather, it is a call to realise that the principle of incompleteness exists despite the imposition of possessive individualism. The undercommons is a call to renew our investment in our ongoing incompletion, an active refusal to be made discrete.
The challenge of cultivating the undercommons lies in escaping the total imposition of individuation and the expansion of logistics into every aspect of life. In The Undercommons Moten and Harney interrogated the university as a site of struggle, one now dominated by the logistical compulsion to straighten things out. In their analysis of the university, they narrate the production of a logistical education that foregrounds professionalisation and aims to produce ‘job-ready’ graduates increasingly shaped by the desires of the market, which increasingly includes a mode of criticality that has come to define a certain agile and innovative contemporary worker. But the concept of the undercommons, Moten and Harney write, ‘is not, except incidentally, about the university’. It just so happened that the university was the context in which Moten and Harney were working when they first developed their analysis. (Harney, it should be noted, has subsequently left the sector.) The undercommons is not bound to the university nor to any other singular site of struggle or institution but, like all good concepts, can be put to work in disparate contexts in order to better understand how we might continue to assemble in our incompleteness. If the undercommons is about a shared attachment to sharing, a commitment to remain always incomplete, then undercommon praxis is about how we might develop modalities that allow us to improvise with our collective means in order to continue to refuse the imposition of individuation. To this end, Moten and Harney continue to elaborate on a series of modalities first presented in The Undercommons: study over education, planning over policy, logisticality over logistics. These concepts emphasise decentralisation and improvisation as key practices for enacting collectivity. Might we make a way out of no way, as the old adage goes.
The task of escaping from the present we find ourselves in is no simple matter and it poses certain contradictions. How are we to act against the structures and institutions (the school, the job, the state, the colony) that reproduce our collective misery when we remain in some way tethered to them? Of course, it is a contradiction to draw a wage from an institution you want to abolish and to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. To acknowledge this contradiction is to acknowledge a certain degree of complicity with those institutions that we might wish to destroy. But to dwell for too long on the question of complicity is to fall back into the trap of individuation. At the core of a concern around one’s complicity ‘is the fear that they cannot sort themselves out in the midst of this complicity. The person cannot say this is “me,” my strategy, and my relation to the institution.’ This is not to suggest some kind of disavowal of responsibility or to advocate for a cheap nihilism but rather to point out how complicity has been turned against our undercommon sociality. The desire to avoid compromising ourselves has become part of managerial strategy in which the individual worker is encouraged to engage in an endless and impossible search for an ethical relation to their work. The danger of such individualised demarcation is that we lose touch with the collective.
What if we began from our shared complicity rather than the compulsion to disentangle from it? But this simple acknowledgement does not go far enough, for the now familiar refrain of ‘we are all complicit’ is nothing but a liberal catchphrase that reduces complicity to a simple moral without analytic basis or insight. How then are we to understand our own complicity in different terms? This question has me thinking of the song ‘Are My Hands Clean?’ by the a capella group Sweet Honey In The Rock. The song is stripped right back to bare essentials: unison voices singing a single melody and occasionally breaking into harmony on the final word of phrase or stanza in a small gesture that adds punctuation and impact to the argumentation put forward in the lyrics. The song, written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, traces the production and circulation of a single shirt from the cotton fields of El Salvador all the way to a Sears department store where, the singers tell us, ‘I buy my blouse on sale for a 20% discount’. The song follows the vast logistical network involved in the production of this single blouse, a network that includes the expropriation of labour and land, the transportation of materials and commodities, the technologies and processes of industrialisation. They sing:
I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world
35% cotton, 65% polyester, the journey begins in Central America
In the cotton fields of El Salvador
In a province soaked in blood,
Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun
Pulling cotton for two dollars a day.
Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill
The starkness of the vocal and the absence of accompaniment add weight to the relations of exploitation that the song traces. The minimalism of the song reveals the totality of the supply chain as a series of relations between exploited labour that are made comparable under capital and yet are differentially exploited. I came to this remarkable song via a published conversation between Chris Nealon and Joshua Clover in an edited collection called Communism and Poetry: Writing Against Capital. Clover writes that ‘the song condenses abstract labor, subjectivity and its limit as stand-point, the supply chain as the material basis of structural complicity, and comparative racialization. There is no name for this condensation aside from history.’ The song shows us that there is no possibility of disentangling from our complicity, which is to say no possibility of disentangling from history. However, if we take our complicity to be something that emerges from the valorisation of abstract labour then we might understand it as something that is shared, and therefore as a condition of our solidarity.
‘What would happen if every time people used the word “university” it came out sounding like “factory”?’ ask Moten and Harney. The question, which uses the university as a non-exclusive example, is an invitation to consider the real terms of our complicity, a reminder that the university is simply a place of work where value is generated by exploiting abstract labour according to the same logic traced by Sweet Honey In The Rock. The capitalist division of labour determines the production of both education as a commodity and a blouse, although the specific character of that exploitation does differ. For Moten and Harney, the university remains a compelling example because it is often afforded a special status, imagined to be a place of enlightenment that serves a common good. But more than this, the university reflects the production of a kind of factory qualitatively different from the factory characterised by the Fordist mode of production and implied by Sweet Honey In The Rock. The university is a signal example of a site of work in which the lines between worker and management have become increasingly blurred.
In the university, as with many other neoliberal workplaces, the work of supervision is endlessly deputised until it becomes the responsibility of each and every worker. The structure of supervision, which Moten and Harney understand to be a form of managerial discipline that also (re-)imposes individuation, pervades every aspect of the university as a site of work. They put it plainly:
First, students make the higher education system. Professors are primarily supervisory. Second, students working to become teachers, in any area, are – all of them – being groomed for management… the fact is that if you want to teach for money in our system, you’re supposed to supervise.
To be clear, this is not to flatten the difference between ongoing and casualised staff; the latter are exploited by way of their ongoing precarity and face a continued erosion of their working conditions as the logic of gig work continues to be advanced in the higher education sector. Rather, Moten and Harney suggest that it is in the recognition of our shared complicity, a recognition that necessarily links workers who occupy different structural positions within the university, that we might develop and practice forms of undercommon sociality. They expand:
Realizing that you have to supervise to teach for money, even lousy money, in our system can then lead to two forms of collective organization. We can take from the job our money and do something else together, or we can work to overturn a system that chains study to supervision because only this over-turning is going to break that line. And at a certain point since any exodus both goes nowhere and undermines what it leaves, these two forms of organizing come together. Any other approach is just waiting around to be offered “supervisor of the month” or a “Distinguished Teaching Award.”
The task then – whether in reference to the worksite or the colony or the state or capital – is not to disavow the contradictions but to heighten them. The challenge is not to lose sight of the totality (capitalism) as we attend to determinant parts (various institutions and forms of value). ‘What is, so to speak, the object of abolition?’ Moten and Harney ask in The Undercommons.
Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.
In All Incomplete they elaborate this thesis by arguing that a precondition of the abolition of society is the abolition of the individuated self, which is to say the cultivation of incompletion as that which enables an unmediated sharing of needs. The challenge that confronts us is how to refuse individuation when we find ourselves caught within systems and structures hell bent on enforcing it. Moten and Harney invoke another meaning of complicity as a possible antidote: ‘To be complicit with others, to be an accomplice, to live in ways that always provoke conspiracy, a conspiracy without a plot where the conspiracy is the plot – this use of complicity can help us’. Here our complicity is redirected away from the monolith of the institution and toward each other, toward those who exist beyond the institution and who adhere to a principle of incompletion. This second sense of complicity reminds us that ‘we don’t make sense on our own’, it moves us away from the compulsion to demarcate ourselves as individuals that is given in the first meaning of the term. This alternate sense of complicity allows us to comprehend the contradictions of our existence without being defined by them and reminds us that beneath our individuation we still remain vulnerable to sharing and being shared. They continue:
We can provoke here not a strategy of within and against, but a way of living that is within and against strategy, not as a position, relation, or politics, but as a contradiction, an embrace of the general antagonism that institutions feed off but deny in the name of strategy, vision, and purpose. […] Another word for this is communism.
Study is one mode that allows us to practice the refusal of completion and the cultivation of the general antagonism. Study, contra education, refuses improvement in favour of revision. It rejects the idea of mastery and opposes the imposition of logistically in which we are straightened out into disciplined and qualified subjects. ‘Another word for incompleteness’, write Moten and Harney, ‘is study, or more precisely, revision.’ Revision is an endless renewal and the implication of engaging in such a practice is that we ourselves remain radically open. ‘This is not just about distinguishing improvement as capitalist efficiency’ Moten and Harney warn. ‘That is too easy to dismiss. It is about improvement itself, the time-concept, the moral imperative, the aesthetic judgement, which is to say capitalist improvement founded in and on black flesh, its female informality. Revision has no end and no connection to improvement, never mind efficiency.’
We continue to study and dance and sing and eat in order that we might remind each other of our own incompleteness and continue to assemble again and again and again. Or we make a mixtape so that we might feel the intensity of pleasure, and in doing so find our way back to the principle of incompletion – a small reminder that undercommon sociality cannot be stilled by enclosure of flesh and land that is the imposition of private property. One can hear that undercommon sensibility from the very first notes of Charles Mingus’s bass that open ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ at a live performance recorded at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France in 1960. This live version of the piece is nothing short of a rave, a driving 6/4 rhythm propels the song forward with urgency as one soloist after another takes communion. Over the course of almost 12 minutes, the song gradually speeds up, as if driven by a force beyond the control of any one player. We hear whoops from band members as soloists take flights of lyrical virtuosity – at one point the rhythm section drops out to leave Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone wailing over the top of hand claps that both continue the beat and break with it. There is wildness to this music, an excess that cannot – will not – be contained. Moten and Harney tell us that this quality – the general antagonism, fugitivity, undercommon sociality – is the gift that the Black radical tradition gives us. The music insists that we remain incomplete, a refusal of the terms of order that enables us to continue communing with one another. When Donny Hathaway asked a crowd gathered at The Troubadour in Hollywood in 1972, ‘What’s Goin On’, the reiteration of a question already asked by Marvin Gaye, he and everyone there already knew that the answer was: our undercommon sociality.
Fred Moten, ‘Black Op’, PMLA 123(5), 2008.
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio, Letter Machine Editions, 2014.
Jasper Bernes, ‘Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Prospect’, in Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes. Endnotes, 2013.
Joshua Clover and Chris Nealon, ‘The Other Minimal Demand’, in Communism and Poetry: Writing Against Capital, ed. Ruth Jennison and Julian Murphet, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Niccolò Cuppini and Mattia Frapporti, ‘Logistics Genealogies: A Dialogue with Stefano Harney’, Social Text 36(3 (136)), 2018.
Manthia Diawara, ‘One World in Relation: Édouard Glissant in Conversation with Manthia Diawara, trans. Christopher Winks, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 28(1), 2011.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, ‘Terror Austerity Race Gender Excess Theatre’, in Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert Gooding Williams, Routledge, 1993.
Cheryl I. Harris, ‘Whiteness as Property’, Harvard Law Review 106.8, 1993.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013.
Antonio Negri, Revolution Retrieved: Writings on Marx, Keynes, Capitalist Crisis and New Social Subjects (1967-83), Red Notes, 1988.
Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Cedric Robinson, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Hortense Spillers, ‘Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book’, Diacritics 17(2), 1987.