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McKenzie Wark on Kristin Ross's new book about the Paris Commune


At Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark offers a fascinating reflection on Kristin Ross’s new book about the Paris Commune, Communal Luxury. This is Ross’s second book about the Commune, following The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (1988):

It is in this spirit that I commend to the concept-workers of our time this small book by Kristin Ross, call Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso Books, 2015). It is a timely, elegant and rather useful cartography of the Paris Commune of 18 March to 28 May 1871. This small book is a sort of parable, about another time and place, but not really about the past as past. It is more about the possibility of other kinds of action in time, as indeed are most parables…

Ross: “More important than laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions – first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic labor.” (50) The way I would recode this is to think of the Commune as an early encounter with the problem of the worker and hacker alliance. How can repetitive labor and the art of making new things, be brought together not only politically but practically? My interest in figures such as Alexander Bogdanov and Asger Jorn has to do with their attempts to grapple with the relation between these as different phenomena, not well suited to reduction to assumed common ground as the same kind of thing, as labor.

The [Commune’s] Artist’s Federation had an approach to self-organization that to me looks a bit different to that of labor. They were concerned with the independence of artistic work from both the state and the market, and as concerned for the autonomy of the right to create as for their wages and security. Significantly, they tried to break down the division between fine artists, who could sign their work, and applied artisan-artists, who could not, by recognizing the latter also as artists with authorial capacities.

To me this is an early example of the hacker class grasping its unity as a class, and trying to work out issues of authorship and autonomy outside the constraints of state and market patronage. Ross: “This is particularly important since it shifts value away from any market evaluation, and even from the art object itself, and onto the process of making…” (57-58) Unlike so many bourgeois artists attracted to revolution, the urgent matters were not about a style or an aesthetic, but practical matters of autonomy and organization that are much more profoundly conceptual at the same time. This was an original version of proletkult.

Image: Communards pose with the Vendôme Column after toppling it, Paris, 1871. Via