Figuring the Inoperative Community
Membership certificate for the ‘Operative Society of Bricklayers, 1887

An essay on 19th Century Trade Union and Operative Society emblems and their potential for figuring inoperative communities in the present.

Figuring the Inoperative Community

Brigid McLeer


“The body is a promise. Removing it – its likeness – is a political act. Political cinema, political theatre are live. What is this –






If you dropped a line and plummet down through the centre of A J Waudby’s emblem, designed in 1861, for the trade union Society of Operative Bricklayers (established in 1848) it would run through and link a series of names: ‘Justice’, ‘God’ and a single member’s name, in this case ‘Joseph Dimmock’ admitted to the Society on the 5th March 1887. Between these three, three instances of the ‘naming’ of the trade: ‘Bricklaying’, ‘The First Bricklayers’ and most prominent of all, in its own distinctive blazon, ‘Operative Bricklayers’ Society’. The emblem names the union, as its name, but also as ‘just’, and as (cleverly) given by divine right. The alignment is instructive, and underlined by the central image of the emblem, a scene ‘headlined’ by the name, come title, ‘The First Bricklayers’. This biblical scene shows the builders of the tower of Babel and is captioned by two panels below it that quote from its biblical source in Genesis CH XI. Ver 3-4.
“And they said go to let us make brick and burn them thoroughly. – And they had brick for stone and slime for mortar. And they said go to let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach to heaven and let us make us a name.”
Then directly below this quote, the union’s name, ‘Operative Bricklayers’ Society’, is located, below which, the name of the individual member.

The society chose not to relate (to) the rest of the biblical story of Babel, in which man is punished by God for his hubris, by virtue of the singularity of his collective power (in a single language through which he can communicate and therefore build), and his tower abandoned and humanity dispersed into many different languages. For it was not the purpose of the emblem, or the union itself, to toy with the negative consequences of ‘unity’, nor to anticipate demise. Far from this indeed, the Bricklayers’ emblem, like all the other Victorian Union emblems, was designed to build identity and identification. And everything about its form and iconography suggests obduracy, dignity, moral righteousness and monumentality.

The trades unions and their emblems appear when ‘labour’ itself appears, in the frenzy and upheaval of 19th century industrialisation. And in this sense they are examples of what must be among the most vivid and elaborate representational ‘figures’ for collective identity formed by modern capitalism. They describe, and in many cases, engendered a formation of ‘community’ wholly conscribed around exclusive principles. Each emblem is a triumphal arch, a self-contained classical ‘stage’, populated with symbolic bodies and objects that recognise, situate and mythologise the particular body of workers that they in turn collate. Purposely designed to be both ‘inward looking and outward facing’ 2 the emblems were highly instrumental forms founded upon the necessity to produce a named ‘we’, such that ‘we, the workers’ might stand united and therefore, appear.
However now, in the early years of the 21stc no such ‘body of workers’, no such ‘we’ can be said to still exist. Yet the irrepressible ‘progress’ of capitalism has nonetheless produced a world in which ‘work’ has become the dominant ideology. ‘We’ as Paulo Virno’s puts it, are ‘living labour’. As Peter Fleming writes in his critique of neo-liberal capitalism from his essay ‘After Work: What Does Refusal Mean Today?’ working has become ideological.
“When our jobs are overly embodied, attached to us both inside and outside the office, working is essentially an ideological practice rather than something required by objective necessity…Unlike other ideologies, however, it does not function by convincing us how wonderful and brilliant it is… Instead it seeks to universalise the very template of work so that we cannot discern any outside reference point or horizon.” 3

Work in this sense is simply ‘an endless way of life’. One might therefore begin to think of work as not only having become ideological but also ontological, the very basis of our being in the world. Milena Hoegsberg, in her introduction to the same book in which Flemming’s essay is published, is however careful to clarify the unequal status of ‘work’ for people within global capitalism. She writes “While the total identification with work bespeaks a privileged position, it must be seen as intricately connected to its counterpart, the physical labor of those who work incessantly just to sustain themselves through what can barely be called a living wage.” 4 However despite what Hoegsberg terms our ‘global economic codependency’ capitalism is fundamentally divisive, producing alienated subjects (workers) hidden in the ruse of the individual consumer. And so the question that titles her introduction “If Not Workers, Who Would We Be?” can only be answered by addressing ‘we’ (potential community) through reconsidering and reconfiguring ‘workers’ and ‘work’ rather than through simple negation. So the question might become ‘If other workers, who would we be?’ or ‘If workers not working, who would we be?’ So, it would seem to me, that we cannot ask the more profound question, of who ‘we’ would be, without situating it within the context of capitalism’s pervasive hold – politically, ideologically, economically, even spiritually. Equally, we cannot redress this hold, and regain the possibility of collective experience, without some action or process of refusal, some ‘unworking’, or what Jean Luc Nancy would call some action of ‘inoperativity’. 5

It is for this reason that I find myself drawn to these elaborate, somewhat anachronistic, Victorian emblems of ‘operativity’. And it is my contention in this writing (and in my research project more generally) that the emblems, recalibrated through a series of transformations, might have the capacity to offer new ‘examples’ for how to figure the ‘inoperative community’, (a) community radically different from the ‘unities’ they once built and enshrined. This entails a shift from the political to the ethical, or at least a repositioning of the ethical within the political, that is to say, a respositioning of the ethical within ‘we’. And a reinvestment in what Nancy calls ‘sense’, or what Jacques Rancière would call ‘the sensible’ – what I would describe as the affective forces of the unknown. And it is here perhaps that art has a particular role to play. It is a role argued for very strongly by Simon O’Sullivan in his book ‘Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari’, in which he describes it as “a kind of ‘return’ to aesthetics, the latter understood here as the deterritorialising function of art, its power to take us outside our ‘selves’…”6 This is a power to produce singular, ethical subjectivities (always already plural according to Nancy 7), “pre-personal, polyphonic, collective and machinic”8 through what Guattari calls ‘pathic subjectivation’, a process that he goes on to say is “overshadowed in rationalist, capitalistic subjectivity which tends to systematically circumvent it.”9 For my own project, it is a question of recuperating the civic art work of the trades union emblems, into new art work, which address the context of the civic or the everyday while not departing from the specificity of art. Work that might substitute the inclination of ‘ethico-aesthetics’ for the inclusion of politics, through processes of transversality, reconnection, sedition and affect, in the hope of proposing forms mutual, luminous and inoperative; forces for new diagrams of ‘us’.

The following writing will therefore use one example of the Victorian emblems, that of the Operative Bricklayers’ Society emblem (previously discussed) as a device through which to explore ideas of ‘inoperativity’ and ‘unworking’ from Jean Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot and Giorgio Agamben. It also aims to configure the dynamic potentiality of community thus thought, as a kind of ‘collapse’ or ‘disassembling’ into scenes (or spectacles) of aesthetic relation, drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière, and on Jean Paul Ricco’s recent book on Nancy ‘The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes’.


The English translations of both Jean Luc Nancy’s and Giorgio Agamben’s seminal books on ‘community’ were published in the early 1990s shortly after the collapse of communism. And although Nancy’s ‘La Communauté désœuvrée’ was first published in French in 1986, for both philosophers it is only in the era following such total political collapse that ‘communism’, as a lived enaction of community, might be fully realised. In the opening paragraph of Nancy’s ‘The Inoperative Community’ he proposes the following consideration, that
“’communism’ stands as an emblem of the desire to discover or rediscover a place of community at once beyond social divisions and beyond subordination to technopolitical dominion, and thereby beyond such wasting away of liberty, of speech, or of simple happiness as comes about whenever these become subjugated to the exclusive order of privatization…”
He goes on to say that “More or less consciously, more or less deliberately, and more or less politically, the word “communism” has constituted such an emblem.” 10
This emblematic aspect of “communism”, its pertinence as an ideological form despite what Nancy describes as the reality of its ‘betrayal’, conscribes a further fundamental problem of “communism” that is the basis of Nancy’s entire critique, namely the lack of any form of ‘communist opposition’, or as Nancy’s qualifies it, ‘communitarian’ opposition. Although he does then, in a footnote, enumerate some instances of such possible philosophical and political oppositions, his essential critique revolves around what might be considered the ‘emblem-type’ problems of inclusivity, immanence and operativity.

The ‘inoperative community’ then is (perhaps counter-intuitively) a living opposition to belonging, to the presupposition of unity, to any State or Party or body etc. that would aim to name and produce itself as such a collective. It is community without destiny or essence, as Agamben writes, “the community that returns is never present in the first place.” 11 The problem, as Nancy, like Agamben maps out, is that ‘community’ (as emblematized by “communism”) cannot be presupposed. In this sense Nancy’s conception of ‘community’ is importantly not an act of production. It is neither ‘work’, nor ‘a work’, instead it is ‘unworking’, refusal, withdrawal, ‘inoperativity’. Nancy describes it thus,
Community understood as a work or through its works would presuppose that the common being, as such, be objectifiable and producible (in sites, persons, buildings, discourses, institutions, symbols: in short, in subjects).” Instead, he writes “Community necessarily takes place in what Blanchot has called “unworking”, referring to that which, before or beyond the work, withdraws from the work, and which, no longer having to do either with production or with completion, encounters interruption, fragmentation, suspension.” 12

The ‘inoperative community’ is therefore an opening up to dynamic singularity, to ‘Whatever singular’ as Agamben puts it, ‘such as it is’.13 This singular is not to be confused with the individual, who is the irreducible essence of capitalism, “the residue of the experience of the dissolution of community… the indivisible,” as Nancy writes, “[The individual] is another, and symmetrical, figure of immanence: the absolutely detached for-itself, taken as origin and as certainty.” 14 Instead of such an atomized individual, an individual both alienated and overly cathected by capitalism, Nancy proposes that “there has to be a clinamen”. Yet he says, “there is no theory, ethics, politics or metaphysics of the individual that is capable of envisaging this clinamen, this declination or decline of the individual within community.” For community to be fully realized, this individual has to become inclined “outside itself, over that edge that opens up its being-in-common.” 15

But of what might such a clinamen exist? What might perform such an inclination, such a rupture into pathos, an inclination that puts the ‘individual’, and its dialectical equivalent ‘society’ so fundamentally at risk?


Maurice Blanchot writes in his response to Nancy ‘The Unavowable Community’ of 1988 that the essential problem of ‘community’ is its tendency towards communion. The community, be it numerous or not…seems to propose itself as a tendency towards a communion, even a fusion, that is to say an effervescence assembling the elements only to give rise to a unity (a supra-individuality) that would expose itself to the same objections arising from the simple consideration of the single individual, locked in his own immanence.16
The manifestation of this ‘supra-individuality’ can be seen very clearly in the Bricklayers emblem, as the architectural form that dominates it is populated by bodies all of whom very clearly have their place, and their function, be it allegorical, representational or narrative. Every ‘one’ has their part to play on this stage – there are no ‘extras’. The idea of the stage is also not incidental. Annie Ravenhill-Johnson traces the roots of these architectural forms back to the Renaissance ‘pegma’, a temporary stage built in the form of a triumphal arch that would have been erected along the route of a procession in honour of a particular hero or important visitor to a town. “A tableau or play would have been performed on them, with the actors dressed as classical gods, heroes and personifications. They were… elevated to maximize the viewing experience.” And she goes on to describe how the ‘pegma’ would have been used by trade bodies to “advertise their profession publicly and enhance their prestige.” 17
Upon these stages then, the union performed and produced itself – its moral attributes, its political and class allegiances, its aspirations, its compound ‘self’. No where does this form of (com)unity approach its limit, do its bodies lean out beyond their pediments and pilasters, to stray from what Rancière describes as “their “natural” allotment of capacities in order to inhabit new bodies in different times and spaces.”18 Yet we might also see these emblems as stages for those whom Rancière would describe as ‘the uncounted’. In this sense the emblems are wholly political, not in the sense that they historically intended themselves to be, but read through Rancière’s idea of the political, in the sense that they are ‘uprisings’ within the domain (distribution) of the ‘sensible’, of those who would otherwise remain invisible and unheard.19

That said the emblems (and the unions producing them) remain caught in a cycle of representation and identification that presupposes a ‘we’ that can substantiate itself. However in reality, as Nancy writes in ‘The Ground of the Image’, ‘we’ is always uncertain, ‘inchoate’ – a request for identification. “…we constitutes a less evident and less certain pronoun. When we hear “we” (for example in this sentence that I am writing and that you are reading) we are caught up in an indeterminacy that is itself additionally polymorphous. We must ask ourselves immediately ‘Who,”we”?”20
The union emblems do not ask ‘Who,”we”? Instead they assert “We, who…” It is not anyway the job of an emblem to question, however the question of whether the ‘inoperative community’ can do without some figure is an important one for Nancy, and while Agamben would contest that ‘the coming community’ cannot be represented, he nonetheless situates a place for its recognition within his idea of the ‘example’. It would seem therefore that there remains an imperative for the ‘community without community’, the community of potentialities, to still somehow ‘appear’. At least that was the case for Nancy in 1993 when he wrote in ‘Le Sens du Monde’ of “a form of being-to-ward in being-together without identifying the traits of the toward-what or toward-whom, without identifying or verifying the “to what end” of the sense of being-in-common…Of being-in-common, it would operate a transitivity, not a substantiality. But still there would remain something of the “figure”, something of the outline.”21


The above passage by Nancy is quoted by Jean Paul Ricco in his introduction to his book ‘The Decision Between Us’, in a section titled ‘The Time of Scenes’. Here he discusses Nancy’s series of letters with his collaborator Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe in which they debate the translation and understanding of Aristotle’s idea of ‘opsis’ in his ‘Poetics’. 22 For Nancy ‘opsis’ translates as ‘scene’ or ‘presentation’, while for Lacoue-Labarthe it is more akin to ‘spectacle’. According to Ricco’s reading, their debate centres around the issue of figure, figuration and figurality, with Lacoue-Labarthe committed to a poetics and aesthetics of ‘defiguration’ while for Nancy the ‘figure’ or ‘figural’ remains enmeshed in ‘opsis’ (the ‘scene’). He writes that Nancy insists “that where there is enunciation, there is always a body, writing and performance – i.e. staging and mise-en-scene”. 23 The ‘figural’ here for Nancy is crucially not representation, it is rather a force of exposure to the ‘outside’ to that which is beyond representation but is nonetheless still aligned with the line of the ‘body’ and the delimitation of the ‘stage’. It would seem then to be close to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘figural’- a means for defiguration, for a flight from representation, in order to “make perceptible the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become”24 Importantly for Nancy the ‘figural’ takes place in a ‘being-with’ that is spacious – it is ‘body’ and ‘stage’- ‘mise-en-scène’. It is a groundless ontology figured by singularities in relation, forces of the unknown, acting through a spaciousness of the ‘outside’ (the exceeded limit), and apparent in what Nancy would call ‘compearance’ (comparution) or ‘appearing-with’. And as Ian James writes of the importance of this idea from Nancy it “allows us to think of the, perhaps inevitable, persistence of the subject…as an instance which is constantly ungrounded and exposed to an unmasterable excess.”25 For Nancy this is what community is, and he writes in ‘the inoperative community’ that this modern experience of community is “space itself, and the spacing of the experience of the outside, of the outside-of-self.”26


In this force of the ‘figural’, of ‘mise-en- scène’, is where we might find then the clinamen that Nancy calls for; the individual ‘inclined’ “outside itself, over that edge that opens up its being-in-common.” But what of the emblem in this regard? And of the new work of community to be ‘figured’ through its transformation. And what of art?


Let us return to the scene that Waudby drew at the very centre of the Operative Bricklayers’ Society emblem, the scene of the builders of the Tower of Babel. The ‘outside’ to this scene is the rest of the biblical story, the scene in which the ‘people’ are dispersed, their language confused and their tower abandoned. 27 If the emblem ‘leans’ toward this outside, it becomes extended into a scene of collapse into plurality and heteroglossia, which understood through the ideas above, become recuperated as foundational and ontological – ‘being-with’. It opens unto multiplicity such as Michel Serres calls for in his ‘Genesis’ “…trying here to raise the brackets and parentheses, syntheses, whereby we shove multipliticies under unities… to open up certain black boxes where it is hidden away…”28 These multiplicities are not only the many singularities of ‘subjects-in-process’ but also forces of communication and affect.29
Extended further, we could link this scene of ‘master builders’, through a process of association, to another discussed by Rancière in the chapter ‘The Immobile Theatre’ of his book ‘Aisthesis’. 30 In this chapter Rancière discusses the staging of a performance of Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’ at the ‘Theatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1894, directed by Lugné-Poe and with sets designed by Edouard Vuillet. This performance was an early example of Symbolist theatre and a radical response to the staging of Ibsen’s drama.
The essay replays some of the discussion mentioned earlier of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, and the importance he placed on plot and causal action, over ‘opsis’ (scene/spectacle). “The spectacle, the opsis, he [Aristotle] concludes, is the least important element of tragedy, the most foreign to art. It is a task for the prop master, not the poet.”31 This “old logic of theatrical action” as Rancière puts it, is part of what he would call ‘the representative regime’, an organisation of the visible, the sensible, in which the interior (thought) is given to the exterior (visual, verbal forms and their reception) through a system of predetermined and fixed codes of representation. It is a ‘distribution of the sensible’ in which everyone (and everything) has their place in the hierarchy of access to knowledge and the political. In essence the ‘representative regime’ clearly defines art as separate from life. What breaks with this regime, according to Rancière’s schematic, is ‘the aesthetic regime’. In this ‘regime’ art is collapsed into life, and life into art, through a rupturing of the ‘concordance of sense and sense’, i.e. through a rupturing of art as mimesis which performs the perfect representation of life but is never life itself. Rancière attributes one historical instance of this ‘aesthetic revolution’ to the Symbolists and to the attention that their work gave to the ‘immobile’ drama of everyday life through a heightened use of the aesthetic forms of space, lighting, gesture and sound instead of those of plot, character and dramatic action. In his terms, what is born in Symbolist drama, is the art of ‘mise-en-scène’.

At the heart of Ibsen’s play there is also a tower. One from which the main protagonist, Solness the architect, will fall to his death while trying to replay an event from his youth. An event in which he felt ‘his grandeur’, through the eyes of a young girl ‘Hilde’, as he scales one of the towers of his own buildings, despite suffering from vertigo, in order to hang a garland for her at the top of it. There are two points that Rancière makes about this particular performance of ‘The Master Builder’. The first is that this scene of Solness’ tragic fall, is itself a radical break from the causality of relations between ‘the proper and the figurative’ ordained by Aristotle’s logic. This moment is instead an instance of what he terms a “radically deviant causality”, one in which the “powers of the outside” assert themselves upon the tragic hero. Solness must climb the tower, for reasons unknown even to himself, and undeclared within the action of the play, situated as they are only in the exchange of glances between the architect and Hilde. This unknown causality then – and this is Rancière’s second point – “the weight of these outside forces that make individuals act beyond all rationality of means and ends”32 can only be communicated through a new form of visibility, one which the art of ‘mise-en-scene’ performs. This is an art in which action is turned into inaction – action is made inoperative – and the passive details of the everyday and its experience among those who thus far have not counted, is given new valency through the reinvigoration of aesthetic force. It is this ‘staging’ of equality that is important to Rancière, this collapse of life in all its ordinariness and sensation, into art in all its aspects. As Joseph Tanke writes “For Rancière, the aesthetic sensorium’s indifference to subject matter is important, for it is the basis for his contention that, in the break with the edifice of representation, a form of equality can be found.”33 This break is a profound ‘inclination’ – to the outside of the individual and to the revolutionary potential of both art and the ‘community which comes’. In Vuillard’s set-design for Lugné-Poe’s production, the stage itself was destabilised, crushing the actors “on an inclined springboard” as they contemplated Solness’ fall.34 By looking at some of Vuillard’s own paintings from this period, we can sense the full density of ‘aisthesis’ that Rancière invokes. Bodies barely distinguishable from their material surroundings, the textiles and furnishings of the late 19thc domestic interior flattened into a textural plane of equivalence with the figures that act within them.



Might we imagine then the representational edifice of the Bricklayers’ emblem (an edifice itself very much informed by a late 19thc aesthetic) transformed from its purpose as the staging of union, with all its bodies in fixed proper relation to their signifying roles, into a scene of multivalent equivalences, bodies relating to other bodies in continuous and affective becoming, along a horizontal topography, behind which their evacuated ‘pegma’ stands empty and redundant like the tower of Babel at its heart?
This transformation, which can now be taken as an action both of ‘defiguration’ and ‘unworking’ (inoperativity) brings to my mind the photographs of Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral train from 1968, photos that I have for a long time now been trying to understand. The photographs were taken from the slowly moving train which carried the body of assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy, from New York to Washington DC where he was buried in Arlington Cemetary. Fusco used a slow film and a long shutter speed, resulting in images in which the figures and their ground often blur into indistinction. In each, the ordinary working people of America, for whom Kennedy offered hope for the future, stand gathered together as so many singularities bound along a line of pathic ‘compearance’ – touched, touching and touching us, the viewer, in a equally binding scene of affective inaction and form(ality). I have always felt that what was important about these photographs was not simply the historical event they recorded, but the degree to which they did not record that event. Indeed in some ways they profoundly ‘de-dramatised’ the event entirely. It is only now that I understand this power as what could be described as their ‘inoperativity’. What is made visible through the images is the ‘unworking’ of history and the releasing of the potentiality of community, as potentiality, as ‘being-with’35. The people in the images quite literally came to the outside to see the last journey of the Senator (who they could not see). But in the photographs the scene that they become is one (or in fact many scenes) in which each one has been brought to their limit, which is to say, to each other one, and to the world of which they are a part, and apart, and this, their moment of becoming has been temporalised and made ‘figural’ in the materiality and mediation of each photograph’s blur. Like Gerhard Richter’s squeegee pulled across the face of a Bader Meinhof gang member lying dead on the floor, this aesthetic mediation releases the artwork from its historical subject matter, and in the case of Fusco’s images I would say, releases the community-to-come from the community depicted. This quality is also crucially enacted by the seemingly endless sequence of images (Fusco shot over 2000 images that day). The fact that they are too many to be a series and are neither a conceptually arrived-at number, they are simply the numerousness called for by the duration of the funeral train, and the enormity of people who turned out to see it pass by. The photographs then, like the people themselves, are an insistence of one, and one, and one, and one…
This could also perhaps be thought of as a shift from the immanence of the individual, decried by Blanchot, to the immanence of art. However within art thus conceived it is neither an essential nor transcendent immanence that mobilizes the/its work, but rather an excessive or exceeding one.  It is art’s capacity for affect still tied to the experience of the world as ontolgoical ‘being-with’, what Simon O’Sullivan describes as “an excess not somehow beyond the world but an excess of the world…”36


These photographs would seem therefore to enact Rancière’s idea of the ‘aesthetic’ and what is profound, revolutionary even, about them is the degree to which they enact what he would describe as ‘the promise of art’. This ‘promise’ is deeply paradoxical in terms of how it plays out the relationship between art and life. Yet it is in its paradox that its revolutionary potential lies. Joseph Tanke describes its complexities with a lucidity that warrants quoting in full,
The aesthetic regime thus creates the terrain wherein art is reinvigorated by being brought into contact with life, while life, it is thought, can be re-formed under the influence of aesthetic values. This relationship between art and life, however, is not as simple as many assume. The relationship is marked by a fundamental paradox that made art the harbinger of a new life, only to the extent that it is defined as distinct from life. Indeed, it is art’s heterogeneity with respect to the everyday that allows it to carry the promise of a new life. The paradox, moreover, is redoubled. In order for art to be art, it must be more than art, that is, carry the promise of a new life. The fundamental tension of the aesthetic regime is that art is art only in that it carries the promise of being more than art, and it carries this promise only to the extent that it distinguishes itself from life.” 37


This writing sets out to explore how the community without representation might be figured. This is no longer a question of how it might be constituted but rather a question of how it might be felt to appear. Its appearing is therefore bound up with the feeling of its potential,  which appears or is present, in ethical relation: ‘compearance’, “our shared being in the world”.38
Art offers a specific site for such withdrawal into what I want to call the ‘compathic’. No doubt it is not the only site. But for art to achieve this it must relinquish its recent claims for social and political instrumentality, and at the same time stay grounded in aesthetic forces that resist total abstraction and transcendence. For my own project this hinges around a relationship between bodies that congregate in critical, ethical and affective relation, and the figuring of that congregation as constant potential.  It is what I am coming to think of as an aesthetic of inoperative (unworking) bodies.

The video work of dutch artist Aernaut Mik ‘stages’ such an ‘aesthetic of inoperative bodies’ in consistently fascinating installations of what I would call, ‘anti-spectacle’, in much the same way as I have discussed with the Fusco photographs, though in an entirely different context (and form) of the total mediatisation of the political.  Each video installation unworks scenes of collective drama (a ‘fictional’ dramatic modeled on media imagery of war, conflict, political crisis or social upheaval) and releases through this ‘unworking’, community as potential, albeit a potential that continually fails as it continually attempts to (re)constitute itself in the sham identities of victim, authority figure, the law, the political, consumerism etc. Each ‘anti-spectacle’ unfolds, replays, does and undoes itself, oscillates, in a particular institutional or civic space and this space is extended into the viewing space within the gallery. Nothing and no-one are as they seem to be and over the extended duration of the work it becomes impossible to assign or designate who or what holds ‘power’.
Each recorded scene involves an elaborate process of staging with actors and non-actors, within an unfolding scenario which has a loose structure and ‘script’ but that is also highly improvised. The collapse between ‘life’ and ‘art’, and in particular between ‘life as experienced through the media’ and ‘art as mediation and document’ is profoundly and equivocally enacted in the ‘unworking’ of these works. It is impossible to draw any lines of division, or to take up any position, as the work and the bodies conscribed by it (and in this one has to include the bodies of the viewers) constantly refracts and dissassmbles “both in the content and formally in the work’s “exterior”.39 In a strange subversion of the highly interiorized condition of most of these scenarios, the work creates a ‘mise-en-scène’ entirely inclined to the exterior, not only of the individual but as Hlavajova implies above, the ‘exterior’ of the artwork itself, as object or installation or spectacle. They describe O’Sullivan’s “excess of the world”, through an excess of bodies (even the bodies of the artworks) that are also somehow still exigent bodies. And in this constant pressing, often exhausting, and yet indeterminate, movement from the interior to the exterior, from one body to the other that is not ‘other-I’, they are spaces of ethical decision. As John Paul Ricco writes with reference to Nancy “It is the persistent exposure to exteriority that constitutes each and every singularity as an infinite affirmation of non-redemptive finitude. Which is also to think of ethical decision in terms of an always-initiating move (birth) that is without any prescribed end (death).40

To finish, I want to return one last time to the Bricklayers’ emblem and the particular context of working bodies that underlie it. We can see in the iconography of this emblem, and indeed in all the trades union emblems of this period, a configuring of bodies that typifies the 19thc ‘disciplinary body’, a body that in the form of the collective body of the union, extorts from the governed strictures of disciplinary power (and its operation within industrial labour) its own version (of confinement). The bodies depicted: heroic, allegorical, the everyday labourer, founders etc. are all, in a sense (even the ones that operate symbolically) mimetic devices, designed to trigger recognition in the workers aligned to those particular trades. They pertain, in the monumental architectures of the emblems, as self-evident and ever-present ‘truths’. They are obdurate, even if they are also performative. In the context of labour visibility and power this obduracy is essential, however there is another sense in which it also serves to underline and support the conditioning of the ‘body-as-organism’ such that it may remain co-opted within a system of bounded production to which it contributes its labour power but otherwise upon which it can have only limited effect. Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova’s discuss this aspect of the 19thc ‘body-as-organism’ in their essay ‘Heat-Death’ and they describe it as “a solid confinement…essential to this process of reorganization of power in the interests of an emerging industrial capitalism. Thus the fluids which were circulating outside and between bodies, are folded onto themselves in order to be channelled within the solid walls of the organism/self/subject.41
This ‘solid confinement’ is everywhere present in the Bricklayers’ emblem. Its architectural ‘site’ which Annie Ravenhill-Johnson traces back to Renaissance ‘Pegma’ also has resonances, as she later points out, with monumental wall tombs of the 16th and 17th century. These were carved, relief structures, organized around an arched central scene, which in the case of the tombs would have been comprised of the supine figures of the dead contained within.42 This second historical link that Ravenhill-Johnson traces for the architecture of the emblem, suggests a kind of ‘ossification’ that is foisted upon the living bodies of the workers, and the living body of the union. Industrial capitalism, emblematized here, enforces a seizure upon the flow of bodies, and of life and as Parisi and Terranova put it “The body-as-organism is organised for “reproduction within a thermodynamic cycle of accumulation and expenditure; and trained to work.” 43

In the context of late 19thc industrial capitalism this configuration (of body) was perhaps inevitable, however in our contemporary context, of incessant flows, globally distributed networks, ‘biomediated’ bodies and remote labour structures, such a body is powerless and inappropriate. We might counterpose fluidity to such solidity, but fluidity in late post-industrial capitalism is not freedom, and as Parisi and Terranova writes, with reference to Deleuze, “The dissolution of the solid walls of the disciplinary society…has not dismantled disciplinary power so much as released it throughout the social field. Post-disciplinary power operates in a space of flows, a liquid, turbulent space which it rules by way of modulation and optimization.44

However according to the critique put forward by Franco Berardi what remained ‘external’ to the alienated (living dead) body of the industrial worker, was the worker’s ‘soul’. The ‘soul’ in Berardi’s terms is not a spiritual entity, but rather “the relation to the other, it is attraction, conflict, relationship.”45 The ‘soul’ is thought, emotion, criticality, the capacity for empathic relation, the unknown that we share. It is, in this sense, not so far removed from Nancy’s ‘inoperative community’.
As Franco Berardi makes clear, it is now no longer simply the body of the worker that is consumed by capitalism, but his/her entire emotional, psychic and spiritual life, ‘the soul’. By countering alienation with greater a investment of ‘life’ into ‘work’, and this combined with the growing immateriality of the products of labour, the post-industrial/post-Fordist worker has become ever more confined, in both body and soul.  Berardi writes,
The overturning of the body’s submission to domination became possible precisely because the soul remained separate from it: language, relations, thoughts, all cognitive activities and affective faculties remained distant from the labor process and therefore they were free, despite the body’s enslavement. Assembly-line workers, while forced to repeat the same movements, still had brains that thought freely, at least until their energies were available and fatigue and sadness did not prevail. Despite the machines’ clanking, it was possible to discuss and start processes of autonomy and revolt. But in Semiocapitalism, the soul itself is put to work.” 46
If this ‘soul’ now ‘put to work’ is something akin to the living potentiality of community (described by Nancy and Agamben – Berardi’s ‘relation to the other’) then it is perhaps again through ‘inoperativity’ that we might recuperate its freedom.

Imagine then, the wall tomb of the Bricklayers’ emblem, laid flat and extended, its apertures and portals now floors, fields, territories, arenas. Upon its grounds now lying the bodies of ‘Justice’, ‘Truth’ and ‘Prudence’, of ‘Science’ and ‘Art’, of the bricklayer and the architect, the gauge worker and the labourer. The ribbons and mottos that emblazon it are tangled between the bodies and the rubble. Imagine then that these bodies get up, move, touch, begin to converse. Neither living nor dead, they are renewed in common. And yet they have never been present in the first place. Other bodies join them, those who were once The Tailors, or The Typographers, The Blacksmiths, The Brass Founders, Turners, Finishers, Fitters and Coppersmiths. The Mineworkers, The Railway Servants or The Cotton Spinners. No one knows who they themselves are nor what is their purpose. They say to each other “Who, we?” but desist from answering their own question. Still others join them and soon they are “two people who meet to become three, to become four, to become a thousand.” They are “communism [as] an ethical disposition, a disposition that lets itself be affected, at the contact of being, through what is common to us.” 47 They are an “inessential commonality”. 48 They continue meeting, joining, conversing, affecting and being affected, not knowing. They are not mediated “by any condition of belonging … nor by the simple absence of conditions … but by belonging itself”.49 They are here and there, and constantly in motion. They are us beyond the form of ‘us’; “attributes of extension…scattered in existence.” 50


1   Ian White, Performer, Audience, Mirror: Cinema, Theatre and the Idea of the Live, in The Sensible        Stage: Staging and the Moving Image, Edited by Bridget Crone, Picture This 2012 (p. 41)

2   Annie Ravenhill-Johnson, The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850 – 1925, Anthem    Press, 2013

3   Peter Flemming, After Work, What Does Refusal Mean Today? in Living Labor, Edited by Milena Hoegsberg and Cora Fisher, Sternberg Press, 2013 (p.193)

4   Milena Hoegsberg  If Not Workers, Who Would We Be? in Living Labor, Edited by Milena Hoegsberg and Cora Fisher, Sternberg Press, 2013 (p.48)

5   Jean Luc Nancy’s philosophical ideas around the ‘inoperative’ community were developed in his book ‘The Inoperative Community’ inspired by Georges Bataille’s work on community from the 1930s. The book was first published in French as La Communauté désœuvrée in 1986 (later published in English in 1991). Following its publication Maurice Blanchot published a response to Nancy’s ideas in his the form of his book ‘La Communauté Inavouable’ (The Unavowable Community) in 1988. Giorgio Agamben’s ‘The Coming Community’ published in English translation by Michael Hardt in 1993, and first published in Italian in 1990, develops these ideas further through his concepts of ‘the coming community’, ‘whatever singularity’, ‘the example’ and the ‘inoperative’ as the choice to prefer not to do.

6   Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, Palgrave Macmillan 2006  (p. 38)

7   Jean Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, Stanford University Press 2000

8   Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm, translated by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, Power Publications, Sydney 2006 (p.21)

10  Jean Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Edited by Peter Connor, University of Minnesota Press, 1991

11  Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt, Theory Out of Bounds, University of Minnesota Press, 1993

12  Jean Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Edited by Peter Connor, University of Minnesota Press, 1991 (p. 31)

13  Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt, Theory Out of Bounds, University of Minnesota Press, 1993

14   Jean Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Edited by Peter Connor, University of Minnesota Press, 1991 (p. 3)

15  Ibid (p. 3-4)

16  Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, translated by Pierre Joris, Barrytown/Station Hill, 2000 (p.7)

17  Annie Ravenhill-Johnson, The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850 – 1925, Anthem     Press, 2013 (p.18)

18  Joseph Tanke, in Jacques Rancière: An Introduction, Continuum 2011 (p. 49)

19  Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Continuum, 2004

20  Jean Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, translated by Jeff Fort, Fordham University Press, 2005 (p.101)

21  Jean Luc Nancy, quoted in Jean Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, University of Chicago Press, 2014 (p.7)

22  Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy, “Scene: An Exchange of Letters” in Beyond Representation: Philosophy and Poetic Imagination, edited by Richard Thomas Eldridge, Cambridge University Press 1996

23  Jean Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, University of Chicago Press, 2014 (p.7)

24  Deleuze and Guattari, quoted in Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, Palgrave Macmillan 2006  (p. 58)

25  Ian James, The Fragmentary Demand: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Jean Luc Nancy, Stanford University Press, 2006

26  Jean Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Edited by Peter Connor, University of Minnesota  Press, 1991 (p.19) The full quote credits Bataille as “without doubt the one who experienced first, or more acutely, the modern experience of community…”

27  And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Genesis, CH XI. Ver 5-8.

28  Michel Serres, Genesis, translated by Genevieve James and James Nielson, University of Michigan Press 1995 (p.4)

29  Both Nancy and Agamben emphasise the degree to which ‘community’ as they are proposing it, takes place in communication. Nancy writes in The Inoperative Community, “this “clear” consciousness, then, cannot take place elsewhere than in community, or rather it can only take place as the communication of community: both as what communicates within community, and as what community communicates.” (p. 19) For both philosophers too this communication is often conceived of as writing.

30  Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul, Verso 2013

31  Ibid (p.116)

32  Ibid (p.119)

33  Joseph Tanke, Jacques Rancière: An Introduction, Continuum 2011 (p. 82)

34  Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul, Verso 2013 (p.119)

35 ‘being-with’ is Jean Luc Nancy’s most well known philosophical idea, which he proposed in ‘Being Singular Plural’ and other writings. It is a rethinking of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ and aims to radically rethink the ontology of ‘being’ as conceived by Heidegger, as foundationally plural.

36  Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari, Palgrave Macmillan 2006  (p.40)

37  Jospeh Tanke Jacques Rancière: An Introduction, Continuum 20 (p. 84)

38  ‘Compearance’ or ‘comparution’ is Jean Luc Nancy’s term for an idea of ‘appearing with’. It is the form of appearing that is associated with a court summons, and so it has resonances of a call, or summons to appear. Nancy introduces the idea in ‘the Inoperative Community’ and it is Nancy’s solution to the problem of how community as he conceives it might be ‘figured’ after the collapse of the ‘theologico-political’.

39  Maria Hlavajova, Aernaut Mik ‘Communitas’ catalogue, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Edition Folkwang/Steidl 2012  (p.111)

40  Jean Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes, University of Chicago Press, 2014 (p.95)

41  Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, Heat-Death: Emergence And Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life, 2000 Published on Accessed 28.3.14

42  Annie Ravenhill-Johnson The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem, 1850 – 1925, Anthem    Press, 2013 (p.68)

43  Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, Heat-Death: Emergence And Control In Genetic Engineering And Artificial Life, 2000 Published on Accessed 28.3.14

44  Ibid.

45  Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Semiotext 2009 (p. 115)

46  Ibid. (p.116)

47  The Accused of Tarnac, Spread Anarchy, live communism, in The Anarchist Turn, Edited by Jacob Blumenfeld, Chiara Bottici and Simon Critchley, Pluto Press 2013 (p. 227)

48  Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt, Theory Out of Bounds, University of Minnesota Press, 1993

49  Ibid. (p18)

50  Ibid. (p18)



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