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Janet Diaz: Field Riders

The work of Janet Diaz takes on one of the most important issues in cultural and politics today, and that is the concept of the undercommons. While the theory of the undercommons has been popularized through the writings of Fred Moten and his trilogy of books about the relationship between race, class and power, most causal readers miss the true depth of meaning behind the term. This is due to the fact that the West has written about the idea of shared cultural values in the name of "the common" since the Enlightment, and for quite some time prior to the 1800s as well. And yet, modern perspectives on the supposed universality of secularism are all based on an idea of a common poltico-epistemological horizon, which is to say, that absent any form of religious dogma, the values of self-interest and self-determination are supposed to be what we share in common apriori. These truths are laid out in books like Thomas Paine’s Commons Sense, which marked a turning point in talking about human freedom by advocating for the original thirteen colonies to seek their independence from Great Britain. 

Of course, this turn away from monarchial rule ended up creating even greater forms of slavery at home within a single generation. Despite this double inversion of ruler and ruled, it was the quality of the common that was again invoked by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as the ontological ground behind the Declaration of Independence. The common here is couched in terms like “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” even as the independence of indigious peoples was being swept away under a torrent of proclamations, land grabs and outright terror. But as Moten, Fanon and many others have noted, wherever the value of the common was extrolled in the name of gaining greater autonomy, sovereignty, and personal freedoms, it was sure to be followed by new forms of exclusion, racism, sexism and slavery. 

There is, afterall, something more pressing about thinking through the many claims that have been made on behalf of the common, and that means thinking about the repressive propositions that often follow from such assertions, however contradictory and counter-intuitive they may prove to be. It is because of how little attention historians have paid to thinking about what comes after, or as a result, of speaking in the name of the common, that there remains a history of the undercommons that is rarely spoken of, even today. Howard Zinn's celebrated text, A People's History of the United States, might presage Morten's arguments which tend to target more contemporary concerns, like the growing acceptance of debt slavery under neo-liberalism, technological coercion under the security state, and pandering to the dictates of the university system, with its mounting bureaucratic responsibilities, gatekeepers and the endless drive for “knowledge production”. Taken together, all of these conclusions lead Morten to posit the notion that radical critique can only survive today in the space of the undercommons.

That is because the undercommons represent a discourse that is related to the right to gather, to discuss, to create, and to play together during afterhours functions as a means of studying the world around us. Afterall, it is the privileged who get paid to study labor and social issues as a job, while the oppressed have holidays and weekends to think about problems related to their own self-interest. For his part, Morten wants to point out one thing in particular, and that is the fact that while the discourse of the undercommons isn’t necessarily literary, it is no less measured, incisive and timely. Instead, the undercommons represent a type of speaking and doing that is Socratic, populace, intuitive and speculative. It isn’t locked into the strictures or structures of end-means rationality absent the heart of a truer, more honest and more resilent humanism. 

That is what separates Moten’s definition of the term from the moralizing impulse behind how the West uses the idea of the common for political ends, and usually as the rhetorical centerpiece of arguments about progress and civilization. But Morten isn’t the only critical theorist as of late to reclaim the notion of the common for the left. It has also been the centerpiece of the kinds of arguments put forward by Antonio Negri and Micheal Hardt in their trilogy, Empire, Multitiude and Commonwealth. These tombs of critical inquiry all seek to address the contradictions of capital as well as how we can share in the wealth that we should rightfully hold in common related to issues of cultural heritage and ecological resources. Unlike Morten’s trilogy however, they point back to the socio-economic basis of exploitation set forth in classic Marxism in order to understand the process of expropriation taking place under hyper-capitalism, but Hardt and Nergi's texts seem less able to address the notion of who will be called to care for, or even to defend the commons in the future… save perhaps, the laborers of the undercommons. This is the point in their texts where theorists of the race, class and power stand divided, because Hardt and Negri substitute the notion of the multitide for the undercommons, essentially obscuring the finer distinctions that elude Marxism as a white, patriarchial, and heteronormative discourse. 

Or, to go a step further, one could posit the notion that the most radical critique of Western culture today would join the notion of the common, taken as a critique of Adam Smith’s notion of the Commonweath as a political form, and reconfigure its basis to include the transvaluation of the contributions of the undercommons in an effort to make explicit those unspoken and unwritten rules which serve to maintain the hidden biases of the state-form. This would be the most obvious way forward for the left in many ways, but amongst the rally cry’s of the MAGA’s, rising xenophobia over borders, and the misplaced nostalgia for the “good old days”, the left has missed the hard facts associated with how life is lived in the undercommons. Afterall, those who enjoy the commonwealth of America still live off of the labor of exploited classes today. Increasingly, those with wealth even partake of the common fruits of forced labor from the prison industrial complex, a complex that is now larger than the prisons systems of its communist counterparts like Russia and China. And American still uses fear and brutality in the streets with regard to policing minority populations, not to mention the many ways that it suppresses the undercommons as a political voice through gerrymandering and a million other small techniques of political coercion. Taken together, all of these strategies allow the fruits of the commonwealth accorded to both state and national powers to be preserved for the few rather than enjoyed by the many.

That is why it is so important to recognize that Janet Diaz’s portraits of field workers speak to the conditions of the undercommons in the twenty-first century by giving both a name and a face to a class of labors that America would rather hold at a distance from citizenship because they know full well, that much of the labor in the undercommons takes place in less than democratic conditions, and at far less than a living wage. The undercommons are that part which is thought to be a part of no part, and even a model of "bare life," or of "homo sacer" if we were to describe this condition in the terms set forth by Giorgio Agamben. And of course, we should adopt such a position, because it is becoming undeniable that our most recent border policies bare out the facts of the harsh realities associated with "bare life" in America today.

Thus, we can say that the notion of the undercommons is directly connected with the idea of cognitive dissonance on a grand scale. It is connected to our lives in both a collective sense and as a historical sensibility, one that we often find acted out by our political leaders in the form of historical amnesia. That is because the undercommons represent a collective forgetting in the West about what is most common, most close, and most near. Afterall, how does one simply exclude the field laborer, who provides your food each and everyday, from social, political and economic protections? Or, how does one forget the rights of the overseas factory workers who make your technological devices, your clothes, and the toys your childern play with, which in many cases, are manufactured by other children. And how does one put aside the global mechanisms of exploitation that haunt both planetary life and the environment to such an unprecedented degree that it not only challenges our right to be able to speak in the name of the values of "the common", but also of the loss of our common values regarding human decency. 

What we do for each other, what we do to each other, and how we participate with our environment are exactly what we have common, in the most concrete sense of the term. Toward this end, we can say that the commons are nothing without the undercommons. Hegel pointed this out in the first hundred pages of the Phenomenology of Spirit under the notion of the master and slave dialectic. Marx pointed out that his version of the communist party was not that of a political party gaining power through brutality, but rather, the development of a global labor party that was to be organized in order to upend the abuses engendered by the growth of uneven development and the rapid accumulation of capital by first world nations at the expense of the natural resources of the third. And today, Morten, Hardt and Negri have pointed to a final urgency in addressing these issues because the undercommons represent not just a hole in the theory of western models of Enlightenment, but the very concept by which the remains of the secular tradition threaten to fall into a state of absolute disrepair. 

That is why the critical function of projects like Diaz’s allow us to see the labor of the undercommons as an all-too-common, under-recognized and unacknowledged part of our lifeworld. Her imagery, which blends stylized backgrounds with photographic realism, makes a space for us to encounter those marginalized voices that provide not just for our needs, but for the necessary functioning capital, culture and social congress writ large. But the value of the undercommons as both a political and an artistic concept, rests on our ability to see the world around us wholistically. The proper recognition of the undercommons require us to not marginalize any form of labor, class, race or creed. And that is because the undercommons make up the majority of the world’s labor. The undercommons are the majority of the world’s population. The undercommons provide the majority of the world’s wealth. The undercommons are the greatest creators of the kinds of surplus value that builds empires both big and small, personal and political, visible and invisible. 

That is why Diaz’s documentary-style video’s and iconic portraits involve creating a widow onto the people, places and faces that we must see as co-extensive with all of our common values, fates and futures, if for no other reason than the fact that the cultural commons were always already built upon the languages, traditions, and systems of exchange that circumscribe the undercommons. As such, we can say that Diaz’s art is embued with ethical and aesthetic implications throughout, or as Felix Guattari would say, her work is part of the ethico-aesthetic paradigm that places the question of expanded notions of relationality and intersubjective experience at the forefront of cultural concerns today. This is done in the name of the common, be it through adopting the view of the common field worker, or questioning what it means to truly have rights that are held in common, or even of showing concern for the common condition of safety, security and sustenance in a system that is abliged to support little to none of the aformentioned in large measure.

Thus, we shouldn't take for granted the critical aspect of Diaz’s art practice that servers to transpose both the material reality and the sense of being in the fields --- or of being a "field rider" so to speak --- into the elitism of the white cube and the greater institutions of “high art”. Nothing could be more timely today than the kind of interventions, iconography and story-telling that Diaz’s work confronts us with. That is because her imagery neither exoticizes nor preaches, neither moralizes nor dictates, neither panders nor dramatizes any of her chosen subject matter. Instead, Diaz’s artistic practice is based on familial participation, genuine observation, and the slow matriculation of meaning that is conveyed by the reality of lived-experience, care, and the confluence of common interest.

Her various projects bring us images of a world that is often held at a distance, viewed from afar, or only ever acknolwedged in passing, and it is for this reason that we can say that Diaz’s work puts a great deal of trust in her audience, because the sense of intimacy and belonging accorded to these scenes allows for the viewer to become absorbed within the cinematic frame of her pieces as well as the greater mise-e-scene of social, economic and political concerns that define and divide the poltiical landscape of the US today. All of this is set into play by the selection of works included in Field Riders, which underscore how Diaz’s larger concerns are amongst the most important issues of our time. She has handled a hot button topic in the present, and really, of the last two election cycles in particular, with a far-reaching a vision that allows us the opportunity to think about what is truly uncommon in art practice today, namely, how to reimagine our collective relationship to the place and the politics of the undercommons.  


Janet Diaz is a first generation Mexican-American Chicana Artist. Diaz addresses issues of migration, immigration, labor rights and identity. Originally from Salinas California, Diaz resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is a graduate of Arizona State University. Presently, Diaz is the Artist & Community Relations Manager at Xico Arte y Cultura.

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