Shukaitis & Graeber (Eds.), Constituent Imagination

Review by Antonella Schintu

Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation // Collective Theorization. Edited by Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber. Oakland: AK Press, 2007.

"Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction" – Mikhail Bakhtin[i]

[1] Radical activism should be thought of as interconnected with the constituent activities of theory production and art practices without distinguishing between them. This would create the context in which "revolutionary machine, artistic machine and analytical machine [work] as mutual components and gears of one another"[ii]. This book should be considered within this context, where those three components combine to open and foster possibilities for radical changes in society.

[2] First, we should not distinguish between theory and practice, because, as Josh Holloway states, and the book's introduction by Shakaitis and Graeber reminds us, "writing theory is not enough" (14). Beyond the critique against the academic substitution of intellectual creativity with the idea of "professionalization" that stands as "an imperative for obsequiousness, competitiveness, and slick self-presentation" (16), the introduction sets out an important issue: "where do new ideas actually come from?" (ibid). Where do new ideas that add something to our understanding of social life and also implement our radical engagement come from? Partly they originate from "the frustration of revolutionary hopes" (17), from negation, opposition, and struggle, and that is the perspective represented by Holloway. Partly they spring from revolutionary uprisings, from social movements, and from the experiments that they bring with them, which is an opinion widely shared by activists and anarchists in particular. Partly they arise from the collaboration between theorists, workers, activists, and artists; that is the stance often assumed by the Italian autonomist thinkers and their concept of co-research, that, as autonomist theory itself, is "a collective creation, taking shape through endless formal and informal conversations between activists, researchers, and working people" (28).

[3] What is fresh about this answer is the extent to which the editors do not consider one experience superior to others, even maintaining that sometimes these conflict with one another; not only can they co-exist but they can also collaborate and institute connections to enrich the way we research and, all above, create possibilities for social changes. "Writing theory" is thus not enough because the scream of horror, of anger, of refusal, which Holloway represents as the beginning, which we could simply call the moment of resistance. This is primary also in Italian autonomists, and in Foucault and goes together with the scream of hope, the moment of prefigurative politics, or, following Negri, the endless process of constituent power. As the editors indicate: "What we want to do here is draw on these histories, experiences, and moments to ask questions about methods through which social research creates new possibilities for political action" (31).

[4] Secondly, we should not distinguish between theory and practice as much as we should not distinguish between resistance and art as "creative potential" (104). As Gavin Grindon (pp.94-107) states "aesthetics can create possibilities for thought." Those possibilities are indeed those of overcoming dialectical thought and breaking with the traditional left that somehow isolated and removed that process of political creativity (sometimes even persecuting the innovators, as in the case of Russia). These possibilities show the interrelatedness between "festival's participatory aesthetics" and "effervescent moment" (95) to both the revolutionary moment and the constituent activities of building new forms of life. What Grindon highlights is, then, a line of thought that does not separate the revolutionary moment as an explosion of freedom, creativity, joy, and even playfulness from the "hard work" of constructing a new society. This line moves from the Surrealists to the Situationists to Reclaim the Street and "provided a language for possibility that theory did not" (101). It opens the realm of utopia, of dreams, of imagination, of experimentation that never exhausts the revolutionary moment but keeps it everlasting. According to Grindon "the openness to dreaming and asking questions" (ibid), borrowing the expression from the Zapatistas, is an important element of radical engagement, above all because it reclaims the urgency of immediate actions.

[5] At the same time it brings about a new concept of revolution which breaks with the giant narratives of the French or Russian revolutions and looks more closely at other activities and practices, at "micropolitical attempts at the transversal concatenations of art machines and revolutionary machines, in which both overlap, not to incorporate one other, but rather to enter into concrete exchange relationship for a limited time."[iii] Grindon calls it the "minoritarian" (105) turn that already took place in recent protests where groups like the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) emerged. What is essential for Grindon about this group is that they oppose the grand narratives ("stories of the battles") of Seattle or Prague with their vulnerability and openness toward failure and ridiculousness, thus embracing possibility, creativity, and opportunities that the search for perfection and the fear of failure would close (105). Moreover, rebel clowning represents a form of activism that exists "on the borderline between life and art, in a particular midzone,"[iv] and shares this and other features with carnivals, festivals, and other creative forms of protest.

[6] According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque sense of the world holds a special relationship with reality as it possesses a potentiality that can create and transform life; it also holds a vitality that never ends, where utopia merges with reality: "People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only the fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind."[v] One of Bakhtin's interests in carnival, it is worth mentioning, is to show its influence on Dostoevsky's polyphonic narrative. The latter is based on the "open structure of the great dialogue", that overcomes "gnoseological as well as ethical solipsism"[vi], thus opposing the monophonic novel, and the structure of the monologues itself. As Hardt and Negri argue, "it refuses to claim an already completed truth, producing instead contrast and conflict in the form of narrative movement itself."[vii] It implies that the meaning is not centrally dictated but rather arises from the exchanged dialogue among singularities which can express themselves without restraint and, at the same time, find places of encounters in which to build "the common narrative structures."[viii] The carnivalesque sense of the world, indeed, transforms reality by setting in motion a vast creative potential and a process of experimentation and innovation. This can be used to describe the way new subjectivities and new ways of living are created through forms of art-activism. At the same time, the editors' vision insists that "militant praxis and organizing are themselves modes of understanding, of interpreting the world and expressing modes of social being" (31).

[7] To conclude, the "method" that emerges from Constituent Imagination is one that refuses authoritarian and orthodox thought and considers theory production as a collaborative and interactive experience tied to political engagement. It emphasizes indeed a concept of radical intervention in the world that does not distinguish between resistance, the various "constituent activities," and radical theory, and also does not separate cultural and productive processes from creative and artistic interventions in the forms of experiences, practices, ideas, dreams, utopias, and so on. We could then say with Hardt and Negri:

"In political organization as in narration, there is a constant dialogue among diverse, singular subjects, a polyphonic composition of them, and a general enrichment of each through this common constitution. The multitude in movement is a king of narration that produces new subjectivity and new languages"[ix]


[i] Mikhail Bakhtin. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): 110.

[ii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, quoted in Gerard Raunig, "republicart Manifesto." 2002

[iii] Gerard Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century. (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2007): 18.

[iv] Kolonel Klepto. 'Making War With Love: The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army.' Clandestine Insurgent: Rebel Clown Army. 2005

[v] Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and His World. (Trans. Helene Iswolsky.) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984): 7-10.

[vi] Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics: 171.

[vii] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Multitude. (New York: Penguin, 2004): 209.

[viii] Ibid, 210.

[ix] ibid, 211.