This Book Might Be Useless
At the outset we must admit that this book might possibly be useless. Because collaboration is everywhere. To imagine that we could write a book about collaboration is to imagine there is such a thing as not collaborating. And to imagine a long history of not collaborating with each other. And the ability as “individuals” (Western liberal subjects) to operate separately from the “others” and the world, environment, context around them. And all of that is false! How can we even begin?
Can we be expansive and still say something useful about collaboration? Let us start with breastfeeding.
I always had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn't quite as much myself as I thought I was. It was breastfeeding my son that convinced me of this as a real, material fact. It is very liberating to realize that I am really, wholly not me, that I do not have to figure out “who I am” nor “express myself”. My experience of pregnancy and breastfeeding was myself as more than me; not doubled, not serving as a “carrier” for another individual human self. Rather as a joined creature, a multiplication of my creatureliness.
What if we are actually many creatures, many joinings, in many contexts? Not a singular id, ego, and super-ego. Not an integrated self. Not always human. But wholly new creaturely configurations with every step we take, every machine we use, every body part we move, every inhaled breath that alters our body chemistry and exhaled breath that alters the environment.
What if being relational—our relationality—is our primary and sole manner of being and operating in the world?
Why do we think we are so separate from the world to begin with? Why do we think our separate selves would then come together under the rubric of collaborating? Why do we imagine that collaboration might only be possible amongst humans?
A Short History of the Individual
Foucault details how the disciplinary society produced the Western individual—the liberal subject imagined to precede social formations. The individual is imagined to be transhistorical and universal, a basic social “module” which can be combined with other modules (in “collaborations” and various socio-political entities) but not reduced. These individuals are extremely convenient for capitalism. Individuals are framed as having individual desires, individual needs, and individual wishes.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
—US Declaration of Independence
So one of the first problems, of course, for the universal, transhistorical, self-evidently equal individual is that of being an exclusionary individual who is not universal in the least. He is a man who is white and straight and middle to upper class. And he is entitled with his inalienable right to pursue his individual happiness which, as we acknowledge in our declaration of individual independence, might potentially be at odds with any kind of communal or public well-being.
This is the perfect ground upon which to cultivate consumer capitalism—an unequaled force of celebration of individual desires, individual needs and individual selves.
Besides, based on at least the past 300 or so years of history since the invention of the individual combined with the relentless reinforcement of capitalism, this is why we imagine we need to write a whole book about when the universal, transhistorical, self-evidently equal individual decides to collaborate. But what if it is just not true? What if individuals—as separate beings-in-themselves—don’t even exist?
A loaded term implicitly linked to formations and formulations of communities, of people together within a work/labour environment. Collaboration has become a strategy and/or style in art, culture and networked structures. There is an assumption that collaboration (in the sense of being more than one making something, more than one working on something) is the preferred working method in order to be properly, truly political and more socially engaged. However, it has been noted, for example, by Maria Lind and Brian Holmes, that there is no non-collaboration in art/culture as such. Rather than generalizing about collaboration, the more salient question would be to singularize collaborative projects and formations, and make clear their specific place, context and potential force in the cultural-political sphere. In parallel, one can then be more explicit about the particular politics at play there. Adopting a kind of radical specificity expands “collaboration” into recurring and urgent questions of the local, the localized, the multicultural, and the side effects, and in return opens out to further analysis, discourse and action.
To summarize: Is this book useless since we are always already collaborating with ourselves, with each other, with our bacteria and public transportation, with our egg-and-cheese sandwiches?