Children of Unquiet (book)

For his project Children of Unquiet (2013-2014), Mikhail Karikis drew inspiration from Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s seminal book of economic-political philosophy entitled Commonwealth (2009). In turn, the artist sent his film to the authors of Commonwealth to respond and this publication features a transcription of a dialogue between Michael Hardt and Mikhail Karikis in which they talk about the theme of ‘political love’ in each others’ works. Designed by Heartfelt, Milano.

future perfect: ISBN 978 0 9557361 3 1


Michael Hardt and Mikhail Karikis in conversation about love

MK: Michael you have repeatedly written on the notion of love in political terms, and I have been particularly interested in your understanding of love as an event that is (paradoxically) connected both to change and to stability. Your thesis suggests that love brings about fundamental changes in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, but it also creates strong sustainable bonds that may resist and withstand change. So a political kind of love presents itself as a powerful model for the creation of systems and institutions that encourage revolutionary change while maintaining social bonds. Would you like to expand on this?

MH: I am intrigued by the powers of a political form of love; it is a force of transformation, of bonds and community formation. What continues to preoccupy me about love as a political project is the common functioning of love as a unifying process or even a process that selects for sameness, which is not only inadequate, but also politically detrimental. Forms of white supremacy, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism are powerful today, and they function as a kind of love of the same or even a process of merging into one. Much more helpful than thinking of traditional notions of racism, fascism and religious fundamentalism in terms of exclusion or hatred is to think of them as political forms of love, which are based on love of the same and are destructive.

A political conception of love for me would have to operate on a principle of difference, or even of proliferation of differences. Love would not be a becoming one. Then the Judeo-Christian notion of ‘loving your neighbour’ would not be conceived as a love of the one who is the same or most proximate, but loving the one who is different from you, not in order to make them like you but to work with and appreciate these differences. Of course this idea would need to develop – I am presenting it as a necessary principle of turning love as a political concept into a useful one and creating an alternative to the most readily available political form love that is powerful today and horribly damaging.

Some people react by claiming that love has no place in politics, and my response is that actually love has a role in politics already but we are not looking at it. The challenge is to create a different logic for the formation of bonds that are able to transform us, not so that we become the same or tend toward a uniform identity, but so that they proliferate differences and multiplicity.

MK: In her book For More than One Voice, the feminist thinker Adriana Cavarero discusses the dangers of nationalism and our becoming one voice. She debates how we might be able to create the right conditions for a democratic multiplicity of voices. She introduces the notion of the ‘vocalic’, which focuses on the uniqueness of each embodied voice, and as I understand it, it relates to Roland Barthes’s concept of the ‘grain of the voice’ and (indirectly) to Julia Kristeva’s ‘semiotic in language’. Cavarero urges politics to open up to the ‘vocalic’, to each unique embodied voice that speaks. The conception of the voice as embodied is very important here because it does not disconnect the voice from the body (transgender, black etc.) that produces it. This would launch politics into difference and variation inherent in the uniqueness of each embodied voice. I think that what Cavarero is really saying is that politics will be able to embrace diversity by becoming aware, not only of what is said (i.e. of the abstract signifiers), but also of who is doing the saying.

MH: It is important that the recognition of difference is not just a matter of tolerance. Tolerance may be interpreted as allowing for difference without in fact engaging with it.

Michel Foucault wrote a brief text after seeing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Comizi d’amore, in which the filmmaker goes around Italy asking people about love. Foucault explains how tolerance would blunt or disregard differences. I think of love as functioning and becoming enriched by an engagement with differences. One then must understand the neighbour, as the philosopher Franz Rosensweig claims, as a placeholder for all possible others.

MK: In your book Commonwealth, co-authored with Antonio Negri, there is a remarkable analysis of economism as a form of fundamentalism. You observe that despite placing extreme emphasis on the body, economism is ultimately concerned with a transcendental value that is beyond the body – bodies vanish for the sake of abstract economic value. For example, the kind of discourse promoted by popular culture around celebrities’ bodies and how much they are worth is disconcerting. Could love transform this aspect of economism?

MH: I understand part of this dynamic especially in regard to what we talked about: love may oscillate between the multiplicity of bodies and their reduction to a unity that features in each form of fundamentalism. Tony (Negri) and I were trying to think of economic fundamentalism – economism – as well as religious fundamentalisms, which seem to put extreme focus on the body. Religious fundamentalisms are focusing on what part of the body shows, what bodies eat and when, and all other material aspects of life and daily practices. But these fundamentalisms really look through the body and use the body and each of its practices as signifiers for something else, something abstract, some notion of the soul. The body seems so dangerous that it needs to be contained by some higher level. In the book Commonwealth we related this to a certain notion of economic fundamentalism. Economic thought appears to be concerned about labouring bodies, consuming bodies and so on, but like in religious fundamentalism, it abstracts bodies to a uniform system of value. All the complexity and messiness of bodies vanishes.

The terrain where fundamentalism is threatened by is perhaps where we could reclaim the complex reality and multiplicity of bodies. It is precisely that terrain of multiplicity that a productive and progressive political notion of love could take place.

MK: So, do you think that love disrupts the abstraction of bodies that renders them the same? Does love serve as an anti-transcendental force?

MH: It is a first gesture, a step toward addressing the materiality of bodies and the field of multiplicity. There have been anti-racist strategies that celebrate bodies. For example the ideological strategies of Black Power in the 1970s in the US focused on disparate aspects and styles of the materiality of bodies. These were an antidote to the abstraction of bodies as it was expressed in notions of white supremacy which focuses on an idea and creates a unified system of measure, characteristic of racist ideology, while not really looking at the reality of bodies.

MH: Mikhail one of the things that struck me about the film is its otherworldliness. There is something untimely even on the soundtrack. I am using the term untimely in a Nietzschean sense, meaning that it is not for our time – you are creating another time. The film presents a world of the future, perhaps a science fiction world, populated only by children. Why does the discourse on love, which is read by the children, inhabit a future science fiction world? I wonder if the removal from our own reality makes the discourse on love possible.

MK: Since its creation, Larderello seems to have been concerned with the future, long before I went and raised questions about it. It was a modernist utopian project designed to create a new kind of life and community of a different temporality. Even the energy generated there is by what appears to be an inexhaustible natural force: heat and vapour erupting from the earth. The science fiction character of the work is perhaps created by the fact that it glimpses at a frozen moment in modernist architecture of the 1950s that was itself imagining a utopian future, which turned into a dystopia.

The grand ambitions and aspirations invested in the site of Larderello permit it to exist as a utopia or its failure – but where does reality fit into this? On one level, the work introduces the ordinary to the site – children doing everyday things: playing, reading, sleeping, listening and singing. On another level, it introduces the notion of political love as you define it, because this is where Larderello seems to have gone wrong. If love is something that initiates change or even revolution, while at the same time generating and maintaining strong sustainable bonds and community, it is precisely where Larderello failed. Because the systems in place at Larderello brought about changes in the industry and its technologies but were unsuccessful in sustaining the bonds with the local community, until their connection fractured completely.

This is a speculative project: what if there were no adults, and children unearthed books among the rubble in which they discovered something the previous generation did not? Enlightened by this discovery, how will they transform this place? In the film the kids respond in quite an articulate way by inhabiting the site as a kind of playground, where games, relationships and territories are negotiated communally. I do not show how the site will change in the future; as an artist I am interested in finding the potential for change with and through the communities I collaborate. Then it is up to them to define the exact reforms they wish to make. In the case of Larderello, in addition to the children, I involved parents, the local government and the factory in thinking about the future. It is now up to them to do the talking.

MH: The delight of the children in the film is remarkable. A site that could look tragic is infused with their joy. The tragedy of the economic-social project and the children’s exuberance is a wonderful juxtaposition.

MK: I think that through play they are creating the sense of common that is now missing from the site.

MH: In your film the landscape is both desolate and powerful. A decaying post-industrial reality is presented against the powers of the earth as a constant. The earth persists and the economic-social project comes and goes. It brings to mind post-industrial or post-apocalyptic visions of the future where the earth is taking cities back with its powers, but I think there is something quite different in your film – an interesting disjunction. I wonder how this resonates with you.

MK: At sites like the Devil’s Valley in Tuscany where this project is located, cracks on the surface of the earth bring us so close to the immense forces operating inside our planet that we witness an immensity which appears to be indifferent to the temporal dynamics of capitalism and our demands for quick profit. There is a sense of persistence to these natural forces, which I wanted to express, especially through sound. Throughout the film, the children sing the noises of the earth and the factory drones that are audible at the site. The harmonies that feature in the work are those produced by steam as it gushes out through different-sized apertures in the Devil’s Valley. Toward the end of the film a child begins singing the note of one of these constant drones and is joined by more children to form an auditory swarm. On the one hand, the children’s song asserts their connection with the soundscape and landscape of their childhood, and on the other, it is a form a resistance to the narratives that dominate their lives that claim the children will have to leave the area to find a better future elsewhere.

I wanted to make a feature of the act of listening. Children are seen giving their full attention to the sounds emanating from the ground and from the pipes that transport high-pressure vapour straight from the guts of the earth. Without meaning to mystify the role of listening, I think that being surrounded by these intense, continuous and persistent sounds resonating from the earth, the children do not only hear and learn their drones and harmonics, they also learn about the qualities of potency and perseverance resonating in their immediate aural environment. When I mentioned to a local man that I could not sleep because of all the incessant geothermic noise in the area, he said: “I no longer hear the sounds of the earth here because they are part of me.” This strength and intensity are inside the people of Larderello; it is the political and economic system that has disempowered them temporarily.

MH: In Children of Unquiet, the children are not dismayed by the presence of the powerful forces around them, but rather, they are singing with them and are finding ways to be in concert with the earth and create joyful encounters with each other. Is this not an alternative to the antagonistic relationship between the human project and the earth?

24th January 2014