Dear Vanguard, Fellow travelers, Non-fathers, Indefinite strangers, Unstable workers, Animated individual punctuation marks, Prismatic fringes, Multi-generic lifeworld, You (but not just anybody)

Jack Henrie Fisher

In the current regime of electronic sociality, every message — posted, forwarded, reposted, liked — is captured and counted as it circulates, thereby producing value for its monetizing platform. In these fluid networks, messages must be radically abstracted and made equivalent, moving with the least material friction, in order to produce the maximum of sociality and capital accumulation. As communication thus tends, through its increasing abstraction, to become an economic form — the preeminent commodity form, as many have argued1, of Late Capitalism — it must become ever more instantaneous, accessible, individualized, and disposable. “Collective settings” in “authoring platforms” are technically discouraged, if not impossible. Archives are hindered; references to the past are made difficult.

It is within and against this context that Counter-Signals polemically insists on the historical and material forms and forces which condition what Regis Debray calls the transmission2 of information. Against an amnesiac and dematerialized “ecstasy of communication,” Counter-Signals affirms, documents, and theorizes the historically militant forms of “the struggle to transmit,” especially the communitarian project, in all its material and conflictual arrangements.

These militant transmissions emit peculiar signals. They are agonistically shaped by ad-hoc constellations of technology and political necessity. The counter-signals thereby acquire distinctive forms of compression, mutation, and self-reflexivity in the project of their militant social poesis. Theodor Adorno’s informal distribution of Philosophical Fragments as a package of mimeographs, prior to its official publication as Dialectic of Enlightenment, is exemplary3. Faced with various delays in the publication process, and confronting an intellectual market “where books have long lost all likeness to books,”4 Adorno improvised with a technology at the edge of obsolescence, the mimeograph, which thereby acquired for Adorno a dialectical power: no longer cutting edge but not yet made obsolete by Xerography, it was less technically advanced than lithography but more accessible. And as a means of reproduction, it enabled both the work’s informal circulation, and, concomitantly, its “incomplete and perhaps even contradictory”5 editorial composition — one which Adorno would later significantly revise for the book’s official publication.

Mobilizing this anecdote, Counter-Signals seizes on a double program: to track and document like-minded forms of militant publishing — incomplete and contradictory — in all their historical and technical mediation, and to reflexively elicit its own formal and editorial mutations, abridgments, and excursions in the present tense. While the contents of this first issue have been elicited without an initiating theme — eschewing the prevailing tendency of contemporary art and design journals — an implicit and after-the-fact interest has emerged, reflexively doubled: the historical militancy of left-oriented publishing, and the inherently militant aesthetic of the medium of print, as it becomes obsolescently figured by a present in which electronic forms of communication have been increasingly overcome by the “total power of capital.6)

Notes for an Incomplete Counterpublic

Counter-Signals generically begins with the circular convocation which Michael Warner says is crucial to the discursive formation of a counter-public7. As a discourse — this one for instance — is printed and circulated as a publication, the collective which it addresses comes into being in the exact and indefinite space which the address opens. There is a curious circularity in this imaginary formation: while the collective is “conjured” by the discourse that addresses it, the discourse can’t exist without a particular public to address; neither comes first. So, a reflexive thank you to everyone projectively assembled in this imaginary totality, here. (You’re welcome.)

The discursive counterpublic this journal aspirationally composes is not just the countable set of comrade acquaintances we’ve happen to have lately made, in real life travels to New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Berlin, and Hawai‘i, nor the friends of friends encountered on social media platforms — though you all are here too I hope. Rather, this counterpublic is a notional one, and therefore must always seek to exceed its empirical social basis. It is, in other words, open to strangers, but not just anyone — congenial strangers, fellow travelers, comrades — when and if you read this, you know who you are. It’s an epidemic of ideology in the making!

As its first sheet of paper is folded, Counter-Signals technically begins, as all printed publications must, on the left — on the verso side. The reflexive openness of its address is materially accomplished by the circulation of the book as an autonomous object — ink on paper, folded and glued together — which might be stumbled upon at any time, in any place (art book fairs, info shops, pop-up libraries, academic conferences, Amazon) by erstwhile unrelated people. The contradiction, between an open-ended address and the acutely contingent material limits of circulation, is another dialectical moment in our communitarian assembly. This address — hello again world — is inscribed in a circulation which might always go awry.

Counter-Signals is print (for the moment) oriented towards a public, one which didn’t already exist. What else would it be? It is, reflexively, “a form oriented towards its own circulation,” in necessarily militant orbit.

  1. “Communication is the form of capitalist production in which capital has succeeded in submitting society entirely and globally to its regime.” Hardt and Negri, quoted in Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and The Foreclosure of Politics”, Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, 2005, p. 18. 

  2. Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, Columbia University Press, 2004. 

  3. For critical discussion of this anecdote, see Joel Burges, “Adorno’s Mimeograph: The Uses of Obsolescence in MInima Moralia”, New German Critique, Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 65–92. 

  4. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, Verso, London, 2006, p. 51. 

  5. James Schmidt, “Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment”, Social Research, Winter 1998, The New School for Social Research, p. 811. 

  6. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 94 (quoted in Burges, p. 73 

  7. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, Zone Books, 2005, pp. 67–74.