Collaboration: the Dark Side of the Multitude

Collaboration is one of the guiding terms of an emergent political sensibility in which certain collectivities and mutualities are being redefined as modes of affectual politics.

Collaboration, literally, means working together with others, especially in an intellectual endeavor.

The term is widely used to describe new forms of labour relations within the realm of immaterial production of varying areas, but though significantly present there is very little research and theoretical reflection on it. What is at stake is the very notion of establishing a new understanding of the term ‘together’ within a dynamic of ‘working together’. The problem is that most often collaboration is used as a synonym for co-operation, although etymologically, historically and politically it seems to make more sense to elaborate the actual differences that shift between the various co-existing layers of meaning.

In contrast to co-operation, collaboration is driven by complex realities rather than romantic notions of a common ground or commonality. It is an ambivalent process constituted by a set of paradoxical relationships between co-producers who affect each other.


1. An indecent proposal
As a pejorative term, collaboration stands for willingly assisting an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force or a malevolent power. It means to work together with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected – for instance the French Vichy regime in the 1940s which collaborated with the German occupiers.

Collaboration as a traitorous co-operation with the enemy provides a counter to what management theory since the ’80s has been promoting as teamwork: the act of subjugation of one’s own subjectivity under the omnipresent control regime of a group which has conceptually replaced the classical role of the ‘foreman’ as the disciplining force. Rather than by repression, efficiency is increased by the collective identification of small groups of co-workers.

Meanwhile various research studies have shown that often teams make the wrong decisions, especially when the task involves solving rather complex problems. This insight is even more staggering since rapid technological development and global availability of intellectual resources increase the pressure on individuals to exchange knowledge within and between groups.

Teamwork often fails because of the banal fact that the internalized modes of cooperation are characterized by the opposite of sharing knowledge: in order to pursue a career, one has to hide the relevant information from others. On the other hand it also refers to the fact that joining forces in a group or team increases the likelihood of failure much more than the likelihood of success. Awkward group dynamics, harmful externalities, bad management practices are responsible for the rest.


2. In praise of mutuality
There is more and more evidence that shows that working together may also happen in unexpected ways. Instead of exerting an alleged generosity of a group, where individuals are supposed to pursue solidarity, it may be the reverse: a brusque, in principle, ungenerous mode, where individuals are relying on each other the more they go after their own interests, mutually dependent through following their own agendas.

Such a paradox of ‘friendship without friends’, as Derrida pointed out in a different context, characterizes contemporary forms of collaboration. Collaborations are black holes within knowledge regimes. Collaboration produces nothingness, opulence or ill behavior. It does not happen for sentimental reasons, charity nor for the sake of efficiency, but for pure self -interest.

For instance claiming transparency within what is called ‘information society’ reveils as hypocrisy: the emerged and yet emerging new information and communication technologies replace conventional strategies of walling off knowledge from the public by intellectual property regimes and digital rights management that grant or refuse access to immaterial resources through operations in realtime. The concept of individual rights has vanished as well as the logics of inclusion and exclusion. It applies to both, the so called real and virtual space, knowledge as well as border regimes.

Against the background of a postmodern control society collaborations are all about exchanging knowledge secretly and apart of borders. The escape agent, human trafficker or ‘coyote’ -as it is called at the US-Mexican border -supports undocumented border-crossings that want to make it from one nation state to the other without the usual paperwork. The ‘coyote’ as an allegory of collaboration is permanently on the move, only temporarily employed, nameless and anonymous, constantly changing faces and sides.

The ‘coyotes’ motivations remain unclear or do not matter at all. It is a postmodern service provider par excellence: there is no trust whatsoever and this does not even create a problem. The conceptual insecurity overrules the eventual financial aspects of the collaboration and triggers a redundancy of affects and percepts, feelings and reactions: those who do not need the coyote’s support are hunting and demonizing it; those who depend on the coyote’s secret knowledge and skills are longing desperately for it.

Nevertheless the collaboration between the ‘coyote’ and the clandestine immigrant refers to the certain amount of illegitimacy that is inherent to any form of collaboration. It stands for the attempt to regain autonomy amidst a society of control.


3. Singularities
While co-operation happens between identifiable individuals within and between organisations, collaboration expresses a differential relationship that is composed by heterogenous parts which are defined as singularities: out of the ordinary, in a way that produces a kind of discontinuity and marks a point of unpredictability, even if deterministic.

This is revealed in post-fordist production, ‘affect industries’ as well as networking environments in general. People have to work together in settings where their efficency, performance and labor power cannot be singled out and measured on its own, but in each case refers to the specific work of somebody else. One’s own producing is very peculiar but generated and often also multiplied in networks that are composed of countless distinct dependencies constituted by the power to affect and to be affected.

In respect of such excessivity that is essentially beyond measure, collaboration relates to the mathematical definition of singularity as the point where a function goes to infinity or is in certain other ways ill-behaved. The concept of singularity once more distinguishes collaboration from co-operation. Furthermore it refers to a notion of precariousness that is emerging these days and that can be seen as the crisis that goes along with this rupture or the transition of modes of working together from co-operation and collaboration.

The nettings of voluntariness, enthusiasm, creativity, immense pressure, ever increasing self-doubt and desperation are temporary, fluid and appear in multiple forms, but refer to a permanent state of insecurity and precariousness that becomes the blueprint for widespread forms of occupation and employment within the rest of the society. It reveals the other face of immaterial labor that is hidden behind the rhetoric of co-operation, networking, and clustering.

In contrast to co-operation, which always implicates an organic model and some transcendent function, collaboration is a strictly immanent, wild and illegitimate praxis.

Every collaborative activity begins and ends within the framework of the collaboration. It has no external goal and cannot be decreed; it is strict intransitivity, it happens, so to say, for its own sake.

Co-operation necessarily takes place in a client-server architecture. It follows a metaphorical narrative structure in which there is a coherent assignment of every part and its relation to another. Collaboration on the contrary presumes rhizomatic structures where knowledge grows exuberantly and proliferates in a rather unforseeable fashion.

The relationships between collaborators can be understood as from peer to peer. Peer to peer computer systems or ‘P2P-networks’ appeared on the internet in the 1990s and created a revolution of the conventional distribution model. Such networks are designed to enable people, who do not know each other and probably prefer not to know each other, to exchange immaterial resources like computing time or bandwidth as well as relevant content. Their anonymous relationships are based on an irony of sharing even in a strict mathematical sense: due to lossless and costfree digital copying the object of desire is not divided but multiplied.

Finally, collaborations are the sites of revolutionary potential. In the last instance collaborations are driven by the desire to create difference and refuse against the absolutistic power of organisation. Collaboration means to overcome scarcity and inequality, as well as to struggle for a freedom to produce. It carries an immense social potential, as actualization and experience of the unlimited creativity of the multiplicity of all productive practices.

Florian Schneider, writer, filmmaker and Head of the International Masters program at the Academy of Fine Art in Trondheim, for Zamyn (2005)

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