There are two kinds of obstacles to grasping Marxist communication theory, Seth Siegelaub writes in his introduction to volume 1 of Communication and Class Struggle (1979), both of which stem from the embattled positions of left cultural and intellectual production within capitalism. The first obstacle is the conceptual one of actually understanding the content of Marxist theory: a critical theory which confronts and opposes a hegemonic ideology must necessarily appear as difficult and obscure. The second, more “elementary,” obstacle, and the one about which Siegelaub, the publisher and archivist, has far more to say, is the literal one of materially locating those publications which espouse the revolutionary theory. This material difficulty follows from the fugitive and ephemeral qualities which happen to characterize printed matter produced in the international class struggle against capital. From basements and jungles, communist publishers must print small editions quickly and cheaply, without the time or money to construct more stable material and editorial forms. Likewise, circulation of these publications is slow and uneven, traveling through marginalized and constantly imperiled underground networks, as the near extinction of left-oriented bookstores, which had formerly punctuated most urban and intellectual centers, attests. Commercial inventories and research archives can’t be maintained because no one has money or space. And the cops might show up at any moment and shut it all down1.
Moreover, Seigelaub writes in a footnote, Marxist researchers and theorists, under the antagonistic pressures of life in capitalism, don’t have the leisure and intellectual composure by which to properly cite or even to know the historical precedents for their work, to the remarkable degree that many communist writers “do not even know what they themselves have written over the years.” In the chaos of these near-samizdat literary conditions, comrade readers must actively seek out rare, badly annotated, and sometimes redundant publications, with an expenditure of “political will” that is difficult to summon, particularly, we might note, today, as our wage labor hours increase and our leisure is dominated by the 24/7 management of social networks.
Within these exasperating and indeed hazardous scenarios, Siegelaub, the pioneer of the use of printed matter as a cheaply reproducible and easily distributed medium for art works, asserts that “documentation is a political action” — “an act of solidarity” that might securely establish a set of citational references within Marxist textual historiography. In the larger context of class struggle, the Marxist publisher thus counters the forces of economic domination not least by diminishing the bibliographical failures and errant dispersals of Marxist literature.
This issue of Counter-Signals emphatically renews Siegelaub’s archival project, while at the same time re-articulating its political horizon. That is, instead of attempting to heroically overcome (or pedantically correct) those conditions of disorganization and indeterminacy which Siegelaub so vividly noted in his footnote, Counter-Signals affirms these conditions as salient qualities — mutable, autonomous, unstable — of the ongoing project of a self-reflexive communist media form.
As an absurdly brief side note on the communization theory which informs this position, we might, borrowing from Nicholas Thoburn’s recent elaboration of “communization media theory,” begin to conceptually disentangle the incomplete circulations of communist literature, noted above, from the revolutionary subject of the workers’ movement to which this literature was attached. That is, we might understand the archival failure which for Siegelaub was a contingent and unfortunate feature of class struggle, as rather a symptom of the “inoperative” conditions for a “communism beyond worker identity.” The failure of bibliographic reference and the archival instability which Siegelaub described might be theorized as incipient features of a coming proletarian “self-abolition,” which communization theory sees as a revolutionary possibility within late capitalism, following shifts in the mode of production which were more or less contemporary with Siegelaub’s introduction. In communization theory, to cut to the chase, capitalism is not overcome “after the revolution;” rather, it inheres through actions and events which immediately create communist social relations2 .
It is in this spirit of communization that Counter Signals 2 compiles entries in an ongoing cross-disciplinary and underground genre of ephemeral and volatile political forms in print. In the course of this self-reflexive project — Counter Signals itself aspirationally belongs to that generic set it documents — the pages of this issue are filled with figures: with images of pages from other publications. In a curiously unavoidable bibliographical tautology, these figures of pages, as they are reprinted, become (again) pages, not simply representations — things themselves newly assembled as paper pages of another print publication, this one3.
This virtual collapse of reference, this recursive iterability, is not simply the mechanical outcome of offset lithography, but might provide a self-reflexive strategy with which to begin to talk and write and reproduce the genre of this crucial intellectual anti-commodity, which takes as its multiform subject those things which the other publications share: labor, textiles, antenna towers, porta-paks, telegraphy, grocery store commodities, incarceration, anarchy, typefaces, books, books covers, and communism (among many other things.)
Paraphrasing Brecht about radio, we might imagine the medium of print, after having experienced a highly over-determined youth, in the service, as has been famously argued, of both “print-capitalism” and the “graphosphere” of socialism4, finally asking itself, in its supposed twilight as a media technology, what exactly it’s supposed to be doing in the (post-industrial, post-digital, post-critical) world. Here, in the pages that follow, is an answer. And/or, as Siegelaub so forcefully puts it, “while these [communication] forms reproduce the social conditions from which they issued, they might also serve, along with other forces, to exacerbate the contradictions latent within these conditions and help to destroy them.”5
I am taking liberties to embellish, and make contemporary, Siegelaub’s account of the myriad hostile conditions confronting the communist publisher. ↩
See Nicholas Thoburn, Anti-Book, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp 15–26. For a lucid and comprehensive account of communization theory as it has recently been elaborated in the journal Endnotes, see Tim Barker, “The Bleak Left,” n+1, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-28/reviews/the-bleak-left/ ↩
In order to more nearly dissolve the figure / ground relation of this documentation, images are reproduced at 100%, when possible. ↩
4 terms from Benedict Anderson, Imaginary Communities; and Regis Debray, “Socialism: A Life Cycle”, respectively. ↩
“A Communication on Communication,” Communication and Class Struggle, Volume 1, 1979, p 11. Italics mine. ↩