Towards A Critical Public Pedagogy of Affect in the Era of Semiocapitalism


Michael B. MacDonald I Education I Commentary I April 2nd, 2015



The Missoula, Montana police applied for a Homeland Security grant of $254,930 to purchase a mobile communications vehicle intended to deal with organized crime and "Domestic Terror Threats" like the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The Rainbow Family, who has been meeting as a decentralized anti-capitalist intentional community since the early 1970s at alternative and peaceful July 4thGatherings, responded with immediate protest. The response was potent enough to elicit not only an apology but the grant's withdrawal .

And while this story seems to be closed, it's necessary to take a moment to explore the casual militarization sweeping community police and local government and to observe and identify ongoing attacks upon non-capitalist social life. Of the "mobile communications vehicle" the Missoula assistant chief explained "it's just like a motor home with communications and computers and radios and things like that." But clearly the vehicle is more serious than a holiday cruiser outfitted with wifi. While the chief backs away and apologizes for the "accidental" extremist label, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has documented a long history of police " antagonistic harassment" of the Rainbow Family. This is coupled by widely reported claims in news media that the Rainbow Family trashes national parks even though the only evidence available tells the opposite story, of very organized and effective clean up processes that leave very little behind. The militarized communications vehicle needs to be seen as a physical expression of the casual militarization of life. Casual, because it is necessary (and instructive) to take the assistant chief at his word, that the mobile communications vehicle is not a communications weapon (mobile command center) but a motor home. A motor home is a family recreation vehicle, a machine for the production of affective family social life. The militarization of this language is to, by linguistic trickery, swap the family connection for a machine that produces authoritarian command.

Militarization is an enemy of democracy and a critical public pedagogy is a necessary democratic critique of the casual militarization of authoritarian public pedagogy. I had never connected the fireworks of July 4th with jingoism until I woke up to the morning of silence of the Rainbow July 4th. Over a period of a few weeks an intentional community of ten thousand or so people was put together from scratch. We had been living together deep in the woods of a national park, a council of interested individuals meeting each day with National Park wardens, dealing with the violence of police lines, police dogs, searches of cars. The family is whoever shows up. Every person is greeted with 'welcome home family'. The first days feel awkward but soon you fall into the habit of looking at each other, greeting each other, caring for, helping and feeding each other. Weeks and many thousands of people later it is July 4th, the big day. But unlike the outside world-Babylon as the family refers to it-we do not wake up to frantic plans for BBQs and fireworks. Instead we wake up in silence. In a simple but effective act of critical public pedagogy ten thousand people gathered hand in hand at noon to form a massive silent circle. A loving and prayerful collective Ohm broke the prayerful silence of the morning.

The peaceful Ohm is a critique of Hollywood's public pedagogy: "War machines, the mainstream, corporate controlled media and the financial elite now construct the stories that the United States tells about itself and in this delusional denial of social and moral responsibility, monsters are born, paving the way for the new authoritarianism." Labeling the Rainbow Gathering an extremist group is not a mistake, it is a logical extension of the militarization of authoritarian ideology. What we need to understand is what is at stake when critical public pedagogy, practices that keep democracy alive, are labeled extremist. What occurs at the Rainbow Gathering is the production of an intentional radically democratic and autonomous community, produced by practices of belonging, of feeling together, outside of the capitalist production of communities of consumption. Labeling the Rainbow Gathering as extremist equates love with terror.

Michael Hardt (1999) has noted in his essay Affective Labor that theoretical projects that connect Marx and Freud conceptualize affective labor as productive of collective subjectivities, sociality, and society itself and characteristic of contemporary capitalism (89-90). Capitalism is deeply invested in the production-commodification-extraction of economic value from the production of social life; however, Hardt argues that in no way does this undermine the continued need to politicize community building. "On the contrary," he says, "its potential for subversion and autonomous constitution is all the greater" (90). The vision of a capitalism invested in social value has been called semiocapitalism, and it is so common now that its definition is almost unnecessary, except that we are unaccustomed to speaking about it. Semiocapitalism is concerned with the financialization of life. This is lived when the logic of capitalism is unable to be separated from life itself. It occurs when we think of ourselves as brands instead of humans, and when our most intimate communications are shaped by strategies of "proper messaging" learned from PR companies. In short, semiocapitalism is what's at play when our very lives are understood through the lessons of capital.

For instance, in the middle of a class discussion on semiocapitalism I asked if anyone makes bread (and I don't mean money - but the connection is suggestive). A young man responded that it made no sense to make bread. He asserted that anyone can buy it for less than it costs to make. I followed this by asking if he ever added up the costs of making bread. Predictably, he had not, so as a critical educator on the trail of a lesson we did so on the spot. The class agreed that the reason a loaf of bread is more expensive to make than to buy has to do with time. It was argued that the rate of pay per hour is at such a rate that it makes more cost effective sense to buy bread. It was not yet evident to the class that there might be more reasons to live than to produce capital.

So I asked about whether or not he's ever tried to make bread? He said he had not. For imagination's sake, I asked him: what would it feel like to smell freshly baking bread in your very own oven, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to eat something of your own hands, to gift bread to a family member, a friend, a sexual partner? He had not considered any of these things. His imagination had been framed by a cost analysis alone. The affective benefits had not been included at all. Together in the class we began to imagine the possible non-capitalist benefits of autonomous production. And once this exploration began, the possible outcomes began to multiply.

This is one example of the epistemological impact of capitalism, and not an insignificant one. I followed up the conversation by asking how many of the people were religious, perhaps of Christian denominations, and know The Lord's Prayer? Most admitted they were and looked intrigued. I asked what they made of the line in the prayer that referenced 'our daily bread'? From here we began to explore the shift from home baking, to neighborhood bakeries, to grocery stores, to the mass production of bread, to the artisanal bakeries that are beginning to open in the city. We compared and contrasted these shifts to claims that the new economy is situated on sharing. But this emphasis on sharing is informational, based in social media, instead of in material sharing located in the materiality of living. Let's face it - bread sustains us. It is not an accident that a religion would reference bread and have it as a central ritual symbol. It is possible and indeed necessary to engage in critique of the ideology of 'sharing,' to demystify the ways the ideologies of semiocapitalism prioritizes informational exchange while it writes off as 'too expensive' the material sharing that is at the founcation of material community (of LIFE!). Making and sharing bread that you make is not outside of capitalism, but is a different kind of interaction that semiotically codes belonging in non-financial and affective ways. To liberate affect from semiocapitalized labor, separating it from global capitalist flows of information, needs to be seen as a vital and life asserting form of political action.

The Rainbow Gathering is critical public pedagogy located in the non-capitalism affective labor that escapes from the financialization of semiocapitalism and reterritorializes human life in the act of producing intentional material community. The ongoing attacks on the Rainbow Family need to be understood as an ongoing deterritorialization of the foundations of shared society. Critical public pedagogies are social activities that directly challenge and critique the public pedagogy of semiocapitalism. These often little practices, if too quickly written off, rob community-engaged educators of pedagogical lessons that can be used in our own communities. I don't think it is necessary to go to the extremes that the Rainbow Family does to create a critical public pedagogy of peace. It could be as easy as following Epicurus and prioritizing good food and good friends as part of a life well lived. We can do it in our homes and with our families. We can take an afternoon to make and share bread with our neighbors. This is more than an act of hospitality, it will change you as well. Don't save your critical political energy for the next protest march, use it to make something and to therefore create space outside of semiocapitalism. Laboring together, reading together, eating together, and loving each other is affective production that creates belonging. We cannot allow producing affective human bonding to be too expensive or to be labeled extremist. When we lose this we lose the capacity for solidarity... and we are alone.