When Christina Kiaer first translated and discussed Productivist theoretician Boris Arvatov’s essay “Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing” in 1997, the conditions for reconsidering the production of a “socialist object” seemed far from ideal. To Arvatov, writing in 1925, the avant-garde’s task was to rethink and transgress the conventional object and the subject’s relation to it, to make a thing that would function not as a commodity but rather “like a comrade.” But as the 20th century came to a close, democratic freedoms and capitalist liberties had just declared victory in the Cold War, and few people were thinking about how to make or use anything in a collective, transparent, and unalienated manner. Arvatov had proclaimed that this new thing that would provide agency rather than passivity, collaboration rather than individuation, solidarity rather than competition, would only be possible under socialist conditions of production, once creative forces were released from capitalist structures. During the late ’90s, that sounded more like a nostalgic fairy tale than a contemporary possibility.
But things have changed. Today we find ourselves in a position where many of the ideological and socio-political certainties of two decades ago appear markedly precarious. Bertolt Brecht’s question, “What’s the difference between robbing a bank and founding one?” certainly has gained new currency. And in today’s version of blatant income inequality, while the economy is promised to be on a path of slow yet steady recovery, the ostensibly unassailable system of exchange and ownership increasingly rattles the global public psyche of those who were promised participation in the mass-individualized dream of competitive happiness. Activists and philosophers have demanded new social formations and systems of exchange, and, according to some commentators, technology, or, to be more precise, digital media, has provided these. To be sure, extreme sharing networks, open-source software, and hacktivism have the potential to redefine labor and property relations; they can enact and provide models for non-capitalist production and utility apart from questions of profit and individual ownership. Yet a reinvigorated (albeit virtual) possessiveness has emerged, given the increasing appropriation of the digital spheres by private interests and desires. While digital making and using concerns non-material products such as information and knowledge, the absence of an object in no way precludes commodification. Indeed, in the digital era Arvatov’s thing-as-comrade has neither dissolved nor automatically come to fruition—it holds renewed promise amid an increasingly unsustainable techno-euphoria.
As Kiaer points out, where Marx sought to substitute a truer, inter-human relationship for the “reified relations between people and social relations between things,” Arvatov insisted on producing a new object rather than abandoning the object altogether. For digital culture, producing a new object would mean to understand its system of production not as an alternative or parallel, dematerialized sphere, but as a materialist one, in the sense that it continuously struggles over the reenactment of conventional forms of and attitudes toward ownership in labor and consumption. It is intricately connected to the material conditions of everyday experience and the technological means that create it. Arguably, the by-now historical coalitions of intervention organized by the activist collective ®ark reflect Arvatov’s notion of transparent, dynamic property relations. Via the group’s website, individuals could lend money and manpower to support initiatives ranging from the fabrication of versatile clothing for protesters to the subversive alteration of billboard and Internet advertising. Other organizations, like the Berlin-based online and broadcast radio collective Mikro.fm, insist on the physical making of the productive apparatus as much as its collaborative use: transmitter soldering workshops and the formation of so-called radio forests for relayed dissemination reverberate with the Productivist call for the “adaptability of the thing, its suitability in terms of positioning and assembling for the needs of social practice.”
But the key for these and other digitally activist practices seems to be less a concern with materiality than with ownership. The Internet and the tools that drive it are far from transparent, or universally accessible, but they’re participatory and social, convenient and flexible, depending on one’s definition of those terms. In order to utilize the remaining aesthetic-political potential of the digital arena rather than compromise it by applying traditional parameters of expanded ownership and participation in the production of culture as the quantification of individual property, the utility and functionality of the objects made need to be truly collective. Digital, socialist, transgressive objects need to reflect the labor of collective application as a transformation of the conditions of production in critical and self-reflective relation to, rather than as a perpetual reproduction of, the depoliticized, ostensibly more democratic massification of lifestyle fabrication.
PHILIP GLAHN is Assistant Professor of Critical Studies and Aesthetics at Tyler School of Art, Temple University