Empire & The Grid

Yesterday, Matt asked a wonderful question about my theory of subjection in Empire and its relevance to Massumi’s use of “the grid” in the introduction to Parables For the Virtual.

Let me first preface this by saying that I believe Empire has already overcome the problem of the grid. It’s now just a problem for cultural studies and other disciplines that linger on old models of social analysis. In contrast to Empire, subjection in The Social State is absolutely indicative of a grid-type model of power, as are parts of the Modern State. ***Therefore: struggles against hierarchy and binary exclusion may benefit Empire rather than confront it.***

At the beginning Parables, Massumi claims that most cultural studies uses a social model premised on structural positions (“feminine,” “black,” etc). This is an application of an argument he inherits from Anti-Oedipus, where Deleuze and Guattari develop an elaborate critique of certain Fruedo-Lacanian psychoanalytic models that use a grid. They spare Lacan himself (Guattari was once the heir-apparent to Lacan’s ecole freudienne and remained under analysis even after the publication of AO), but are not so kind to his more dogmatic followers, such as Serge Leclaire.

The key components of their critique are two-fold: the three syntheses, and the five paralogisms. For the nitty-gritty of this, there is no better reference than Eugene Holland’s Introduction to Anti-Oedipus. I will not go into those now and only gloss the general argument.

“The grid” originated in the Lacanian analysis that emerged from his middle period (the era with all the diagrams and mathemes) and was institutionalized in Lacanian clinical practice. It follows a symptomology similar in form to that of the DSM, which makes a positive diagnosis from a bundle of symptoms that declares a patent to be stricken with a discrete, differentiated, and defined psychological complex (“hysteria” let’s say). The patient is then placed on a grid, and the grid within the patient is mapped. Imagine a huge chess board where every box is defined, with the patient standing in the appropriate box. (Or, for our social theory, imagine a chess board with social positions rather than psychological ones.) The treatment regime that follows places the analyst in another box on the board, yet not in an “analyst box,” but a box counter to the particular box of the patient. For more, look at Bruce Fink’s Lacanian diagnostic manuals, which are dedicated to clinical diagnosis and prescription of which “counter-position” analysts are meant to take. This process places the analyst within the patients misarranged psychic circuitry, and while that analyst is in the clinically designated place of the patient’s circuit, they take on guises to enact a psychic drama that get the patient to engage in the psychic processes connection, breakage, and charging that rewires their circuit. (According to Lacanians. hysterics think that the Big Other holds the answer, so the analyst must take on that position to show that the patient holds the answers for themselves).

This is all to say, within a certain Lacanianism: 1) there are a limited amount of subject-positions, 2) those subject-positions exist on an inter-subjective grid, 3) the relations between positions is determining and determined, and thus taking one position will have fairly predictable effects on other positions, and 4) politics is thus a diagnosis of what complex is to be addressed, and a clinical program of presenting the appropriate counter-position.

Anti-Oedipus is a thorough critique of this approach. I can’t rehearse the whole argument here, but the basic are: 1) subject-positions are an effect of ongoing processes, and it is the processes that should be tinkered with, 2) the complexity of subjects are not exhausted by their subject positions (“i am more than just a hysteric!”), and 3) individualized (“singular”) treatment regimes promise to generate result unavailable on the grid, but because of their unpredictability they can be either really good or really bad.

Let me go through each of those three quickly.
Subjects are an effect: Workers are rarely confused for the products they produce at work. Similarly, subjects should not be confused for the psychic complexes they exhibit.If you want to give workers a better life, modifying the product seems too oblique and would have unpredictable results. Rather, modify their time, pay, or conditions, or even create a society where they don’t need to work. Similarly, “treat the person, not the complex.” This should sound familiar, because it’s what modern medicine claims to do (and it does, moreso than it used to, but maybe not as much as it claims).

Subjects exceed their categories: D&G don’t claim that rather uniform complexes don’t exist, because they do. However, what interests them is not the symptoms that patients share (what makes all hysterics the same), but what makes each case different. This is because they think the key to “dealing” with each case is through their unique symptoms — everything that exceeds or doesn’t fit the category. Moreover, maybe certain symptoms are not a problem with the individual or their body, but the society (hysteria!). So it’s perhaps society that should be changed and not the individual case.

Individualized treatment: the grid reflects society, and the normalized distribution of psychic circuitry of that society. Society sets up psychic toll-roads (taboos, guilt, transgression, etc) that require one to psychically “pay” to get pleasure. If patients find an individual path that gets them pleasure without paying a toll, they can get “pleasure for free.” However, that requires avoiding the grid (but that also requires it not to become a common path, or else society sets up a toll road on the alternate path, too). Getting pleasure for free is an excellent idea in the abstract, but could also have terrible consequences if done wrong. But, since Guattari worked with especially acute cases, such as catatonics, so any breakthrough seemed to probably be good.

Now, does social subjection currently happen according to “a grid”? I would say that within (an idealized picture of) Empire:
1) it’s ultimate goal is not normalized subjects but a continuation of the present
2) control is not exercise through the limited amount of subject positions presumed by lacanian analysis
3) control occurs through differentials, which are non-reductive, and address the movements of “whatever subjectivity” rather than specific subjects
4) it doesn’t set up a universal grid, but does try to totally model the “phase space” of The Metropolis, and tries to limit everything it can’t model to the Outside
5) it models as many potential movements of the differential as possible
6) it “exploits” those movements by capturing surplus, but not through psychic tolls
7) it does use discipline in a pinch, but not as its primary tool of control

In D&G, this is the bergsonian and tardean “molecular politics,” and I think Empire is molecular (and not molar). It rules through differentials, not subjects (something Deleuze says in the control societies essay). Post-Deleuzian uses of phase space that do not have revolutionary aspirations, such as Delanda and parts of Protevi, are extensions of the present. Their approaches follow Deleuze’s insistence (echoing William James) that we need “belief in this world,” e.g. extending positively identifiable elements of this world gives us hope for creating a different one. More revolutionary approaches, such as Lazzarato and Holland, also follow from this. I am less certain.

These form of modeling relates to “cybernetics,” because cybernetics ostensibly models as many outcomes as possible without judgement, abstract out patterns, and suggests ways to intervene that change those patterns. It had utopian aspirations, but has become the bread and butter of the Chicago school of economics, human capital, neoliberal government, etc. For a good critique, start with Tiqqun’s Cybernetic Hypothesis, and move onto recent post-Deleuzian works in New Media– Tiziana Terranova, Alex Galloway, etc.

Possible problems for those attempting this style of management:
1) all models have external limitations, example: weather– weather cannot be accurately predicted after three days, not because models aren’t powerful enough, but because there are too many possible divergent outcomes after that period of time. the best models can give a picture with broad strokes, or even give you many different scenarios (here are 5 different, divergent states the weather could be in: cloudy, rainy, sunny, this hot, that much wind, etc).
2) models “raise the stakes” of unwanted contingencies. managers who “invest” in certain outcomes to push results to be more favorable (e.g. you see 5 potential outcomes, and you invest money in 3 of them, which makes most everyone else want to piggy-back off your investment) makes the cost of unfavorable outcomes even higher. this is the “black swan” theory, and the reason that banks were “too big to fail.”

The payoff:
1) molecular is not exclusively on the side of radical politics, it’s open and available to everyone, and is the primary mode of Empire’s governance
2) subject-position analysis was counter-revolutionary in 1971, as it simply remolarized the molar welfare state. in 2013, subject-position analysis could have a useful place in our analysis, as the molar might be an appropriate response to Empire’s molecular control.
3) the indeterminate spots in Empire’s models could be used to our advantage. but that requires pursuit a politics that embraces and knows how to benefit from indeterminacy and “black swan” contingencies. there are a lot of ways it could go bad.
4) our actions should sometimes avoid the grid, though not always.

further reading: lazzarato has a number of really good pieces on this. he also imagines control to be the control of difference rather than subject-positions, though his political prescriptions aren’t always inspiring. i would look at “Concepts of Life and the Living in the Societies of Control” in particular.


2 thoughts on “Empire & The Grid

  1. do you think BM escapes these problems? i am somewhat torn…sometimes i think he “gets it” (national enterprise emergency) and other times it just seems like he overvalues minute differential experiences (in both of his books)

    1. kb: i think the BM is much more invested in experimenting with the metaphysics than the partisan outcomes we share.

      i don’t begrudge him, as his work has found applications in arts & culture that are wildly interesting — i’m quite inspired by the work of his partner, erin manning, who focuses on art, dance, and design.

      give that, i think he provides much better methodological tools than political prescriptions. in that short section of Parables where he describes neoliberalism, it’s quite useful: http://books.google.com/books?id=yXUPCX5axbcC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA86#v=onepage&q&f=false — yet it’s still very concretely on the diagnostic side, and doesn’t imply a specific response.

      i also agree that “overvaluing minute differential experience” is a huge risk. this is the problem that social scientists run into all the time — should we do political economy or thick description? theory or ethnography? integrating the two always sounds the most appealing option, but not all of us are michael taussig.

      what do you think, do you find much political guidance from BM?

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