Book Review- Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life, by Stevphen Shukaitis

On: September 19, 2010
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About Cristina Reyna
Cristina Reyna New Media Master Student 2010/2011 Cristina was born in Colombia, she moved to Belgium to study in the Catholic University of Louvain, since then she has been involved in women rights issues. She works in the field of development, migration and peace.


In the era of New Media, where the multiple identities of social movements find their best way of expression, Stevphen Shukaitis recalls the power of radical and collective imagination giving a new perspective on radical social movements nowadays.

What does it mean to invoke the power of the imagination when it has already seized power (through media flows and the power of the spectacle)? Does any subversive potentiality remain, or are we left with simply more avenues for the rejuvenation of questionable fields of power and rearticulating regimes of accumulation?

In the book the author explores first ideas of autonomist politics, class composition analysis, and avant-garde arts, to then illustrate cases of social struggles. Far from denying the importance of the social movement, his approach allows the reader to learn from the history of social movements and to come up with answers to `the what to do`.

Recuperation, rethinking and renovation would be the main conclusions, referring to the radical imagination politics nowadays.

To understand this book one has to explore these questions: `What exactly is radical imagination? And what are the compositional capacities created by the emergence, transformation, mutation, and decomposition of collective imagination within social movements? ` pg.10 Through analyses, critics and examples the author theorizes on the radical imagination.

Radical imagination is defined by the author as the collective ability to “affect and be affected by the world, to develop movements toward new forms of autonomous sociality and collective self-determination” pg. 10

Autonomy will be the linking word that shapes the essences of the radical thinking, the sustainability of the emancipatory struggles of radical imagination will depend on the capacity to keep their own autonomy: “Autonomy will be the linking word that shapes the essences of the radical thinking. Autonomy broadly refers to forms of struggle and politics that are not determined by the institutions of the official left (unions, political parties, etc.). In other words, extraparliamentary politics; a rejection of the mediation of struggles by institutional forms, especially since representation and mediation are all too often the first

step in the recuperation of these struggles. To borrow Wolfi Landstreicher’s description (n.d.), autonomous self-organization is characterized by non-hierarchical organization, horizontal communication and relationships, and the necessity of individual autonomy in relation to collectivity.” (Pg 17)

One will have to reconsider the definition of autonomy and self-organization as static terms; they are instead, terms continuously shaped from the practices from where they emerge, so radical imagination is socially and historical situated, social struggles find their energy in the popular culture, which legitimizes  the process from autonomous organization to collective power.

Imagination is viewed as an ongoing relationship between history, social interactions and people; this premise will bring the reader to the concept of collective imagination.

`The task is to explore the construction of imaginal machines, comprising the socially and historically embedded manifestations of the radical imagination. Imagination as a composite of our capacities to affect and be affected by the world, to develop movements toward new forms of autonomous sociality and collective self-determination. Pg 26

Firstly, he analyses the struggles and renewal of capitalism to conclude ` The problematic and shocking revelation is that social struggles do not die, but rather are left in a zombified state of indeterminacy where their only desire is to turn against themselves and eat the brains of the living labor of resistance. That is to say, each renewed round of capitalist accumulation is based on the ability to turn the energies of insurgency against itself.` pg. 26.  The author argues that the radical imagination is the driving force of history, and that capitalism is a secondary, insatiable power fed by the ingenuity of that imagination. Radical imagination will be then accountable for itself rather than only responding to capitalism.  Shukaitis examines ways in which forms of collective creativity and politics can be made durable through organizational forms, particularly in the case of worker self management.

Then Shukaitis explores, inspired by the alter globalization movement, the creation of collectives of resistance. He describes the history of struggle about domestic labor that feminism has introduced, demanding the recognition of the reproductive role as an economic value. In the case he describes, domestic work is characterized by being precarious and unrecognized. In his analysis the author links precarity to evolving politics: “Although precarious labor is far from being new (if anything, it has always been the condition of labor in capitalism), it provides tools and methods for organizing within the current context. The grounds for radical politics constantly need to be recomposed, that is to say, the grounds for politics they are also precarious, and will continue to be so.” Pg. 28

Precarity has had in the past a positive meaning, synonym of freedom and time for life, later on it became a synonym of uncertainty, which is a potentiality of radical thinking depending on the use given to the concept itself.

In his conclusion Shukaitis proposes that radical politics needs to be in continuous  redefinition,  it has to keep on looking for creative ways in order to not be turned against itself, becoming a tool for capitalism. `This requires the continual rebuilding and reformulation of imaginal machines capable of animating new forms of self-organization and autonomy in the revolutions of everyday life.` pg. 18

It could seem that what Shukaitis is bringing in is not new, and it is true the concept of new social movements has been studied before, what is new in this dissertation in the openness of analysis that gives the light to rethink in the practices of social movements.  Precarias a la Deriva is a clear example of this continuous rethinking: this collective Precarias a la Deriva brings the issue of economic justice with a gender analysis, they are denouncing the precarity of domestic labor. The topic of recognition of the value of reproductive work has been one of the main demands on the feminist agenda since the 80´s when the first studies on Gender roles were brought to the political agenda.  Since then domestic work has taken different faces, the idea of giving an economic value to the work at home was taken on by right wing politicians as a proposition to reduce the lack of jobs in the formal sector. The feminist agenda had then to rethink their proposition, and reframed their struggle beyond the value of the reproductive role, to a discourse about economic justice. Rethinking, reshaping, adapting and contesting the flexibility of labor is the way Precarias a la Deriva will survive their radical imagination, and this is only one of the multiple examples of current struggles in society.

This inspiring dissertation invites the reader to think thoroughly about what drives social movements nowadays. Different identities, popular expressions and collective imagination have to be reviewed in a continuous process in order to not get lost in the way to achieve emancipation. What worked before may not work now, and what works now may not work in the future.

About the Author:

Stevphen Shukaitis is an editor at Autonomedia and lecturer at the University of Essex. He is the author of Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life (Autonomedia, 2009) and editor (with Erika Biddle and David Graeber) of Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization (AK Press, 2007). His research focuses on the emergence of collective imagination in social movements and the changing compositions of cultural and artistic labor.

Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutionsof Everyday Life. London 295 pg. – 2009 Stevphen Shukaitis

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