Three examples highlight the stream as a space of encounter between otherwise disparate elements: Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo and Zoë Ozma’s East Bay Crying Coalition, and Tomas Durkin, Lawrence Lu, Javad Moghassemi, and Naomi Satake’s Urinal Stream. Each project gathers information and organizes emotional content into streams meant to provoke future encounters. The significance of these examples is that they dramatize the politicization of streams through the amplification of the affective forces associated with them, as seen in the emerging culture of streaming feminism, which exemplifies what Sara Ahmed calls cultural politics of emotion. In this way, the projects counteract the aggressive, violent, and conspiratorial climate pervasive to digital culture by disseminating an alternative archive of feelings that act as an encoded repository of the practices that surround their production and reception (Cvetkovich, Archive of Feelings, 7). And by sharing in feminist project Public Feeling’s goal of transforming private emotions into a public resource for political action, streaming feminism speaks to the importance of a philosophy of the encounter (The Promise of Happiness; Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling). Continue reading “Streaming Feminism”
Month: August 2013
Media & The Materialism of the Encounter
“It is raining,” French philosopher Louis Althusser writes as an introduction to the underground current of materialism that runs through the history of philosophy (“The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” 167). But Althusser’s apartment window and the drops that inspired him to write manuscript that is “before all else, a book about ordinary rain,” have been displaced by an even more ubiquitous window – the screen – and a new rain – the digital stream.
This article repeats Althusser’s materialist philosophy of the encounter. It is a materialist philosophy that arrives late in Althusser’s career to combine electric readings of Deleuze, Derrida, and Epicurus not present in his earlier writings on ideology, the state, and determinism. In repeating Althusser, however, this paper is not a return to Althusser – his conjuncture: debates within the French Communist party over Stalinism and the role of class struggle, or the philosophical legacy of Machiavelli and Hobbes – but rather, it chases the current of materialist philosophy as it flows into the field of media studies.
Sorry for the long absence. I helped put on an involved conference, successfully defended my dissertation, learned how to make video games (expect a release soon!), tried and failed to complete a project using degraded web tools, and began writing a media studies article.
Regularly posting will soon commence. But for now, enjoy the final dissertation. It’s very much still a work in progress, but it’s finally time for me to begin the long process of publishing my first academic book – starting with a book proposal.
Escape is the oldest story of freedom, and it is among the simplest.
Half a century ago, an anarchist scholar decided to write a heroic story of peasants.When bodies started piling up in Vietnam, he was intrigued that people actually cared about peasants for once. Even then, his task was not easy, given that peasants usually serve as the stage upon which more dramatic disputes between nationalists and colonizers are performed. However, in the archives he uncovered books and records that he wielded against those who had dismissed his humble peasants.
The heroic peasants were a good start for the scholar. While national liberation struggles claimed that the heart of the nation beat within the peasant, the scholar focused an even more elusive class of people: hill peoples, those who buck authorities with a run to the hills. Through diligent scholarship, he was able to bring together an impressive array of theories and terms to describe why certain peoples are poor materials for state-making.
What the scholar loved most about the hill people was their slash-and-burn culture. Dismissed by others as hillbilly backwardness, he knew that their whole way of life was an elaborate trick that they used to be left alone. But everything is different now, he reluctantly admitted; it had all changed after World War II. Most States developed technologies, both mechanical and human, that eliminated their ‘dark twins’ hiding in the mountains. Space was spanned and the hill sanctuaries were found, he said. The few peoples still in the hills were the last ones to escape; but even they are on the verge on disappearing, he lamented.
Not far away, a similar discovery was made.
A young college student was tired of the usual posturing of campus activism. The daily barrage of manufactured urgency and its politics of guilt did not interest him. What he did have was a plan to fight Reagan’s imperialist interventions in Latin America. So after gaining a little know-how in engineering with a focus on alternative energy, he headed south to make a real contribution to ‘the people who could use help.’
But the student felt out of place after he got there and was nagged by the feeling that this struggle was not his. The projects he worked on were practical, no doubt – computer donations from the States were not hurting the people of El Salvador – but they were not really helping that much either. When he looked for guidance, the El Salvadorians were kind but blunt. Their war torn country did not need engineering solutions to political problems, they said. So the student went back home to ponder.
Look, just go to the mountains, a comrade said while visiting the student. The student shot back an incredulous glance. Look, you have mountains here. Just go to the mountains. That’s what we do. Get some guns, go to the mountains, and wage a revolution. The student responded thoughtfully, agreeing that, yes, there were mountains in Seattle, but he was not sure about the rest of the suggestion. A few moments later, with an embarrassed grin, he admitted that it simply did not correspond to his reality at all.
Though quite different, the two stories agree on a basic point: today, there is no sense in running to the hills. The hills may have previously been a non-place, a u-topia, where a people existed without a history. And while it is said that the history of people is the history of class struggle, it would be at least as truthful to say that the history of the peoples without history is the history of those who escape. But with the great latticework of surveillance and control that now spans most of the developed world, the veil of spatial isolation has been pierced. So today, the hills cannot help make class struggle or freedom a reality.
Even with hill peoples now under State control, however, is it not obvious that escape still does and always will exist? Of course it all depends on context – but there is a political danger in the desire to always want more context. The greatest risk is that providing context becomes a purely academic exercise that defers judgment or action. This deferral is an expression of postmodern relativism, most commonly voiced as the desire for complexity (“well, it’s complicated…” or “let me complicate this a bit first…”). Such an incessant demand for context is to be expected, however, as protesting simplicity is a critical move in today’s dominant ideology. So I will begin there. Yet it is my ultimate aim to demonstrate how a reworked concept of escape is essential to understanding contemporary power. Therefore, after I finish examining the demolition of the distinction between the valley and the hill or the town and the country, I shift to the new paths of escape that have opened up under the towering figure of the Metropolis. Because to escape today, one does not run to the hills but burrows deeper into the dark underside of the Metropolis. Continue reading “Prelude”
Part 1 – Culture
More State history is lived in the single day of a culture than what is entombed in a whole decade of its laws. By extension, studying the State should begin with an examination of its rituals and not its ledgers. Perhaps the best place to start is with George Dumézil’s work Mitra-Varuna. Part philology and part folklore, Dumézil compares Indo-European myths of authority in order to synthesize them into a single general theory of sovereignty. Mythical sovereignty, he claims, is constituted by two heads: one a mighty conqueror and the other a righteous priest. And while these two “saviors of the State” are embodied in literal heads of State, they are realized more regularly in many cultural practices disseminated throughout a nation of people (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 143). Yet those cultural expressions of sovereignty are often omitted in studies of the State, which causes them to miss the essentially cultural character of power. This is why legal or economic descriptions of the State are not only deficient, as they lack the essential element of culture, but also why they assume the State to be the ultimate agent of politics. Cultural descriptions of the State, in contrast, not only identify what escapes cultural codes but how to escape the State itself. Continue reading “Part 1 – Culture”
Chapter 1 – The Archaic State & The Priestly State
The Archaic State of Conquest
They were on the run. As they made their hurried escape through the fields, neither of them wanted to look back. Everyone traded tales about life in the mountains but they were the ones daring enough to seek it out. On more than one occasion during their getaway, fatigue threatened to consume them. And even though they were cloaked in the dark cover of night, they thought for sure that they would be seen. But dread provided more than enough fuel for their flight. Both of them had heard frightening stories about the catchers – cruel, bloodthirsty men said to taunt and toy with runaways just for fun. And so they amputated the burn in their legs and the ache in their bellies with the searing horrors of being caught.
Then, right as they caught of a glimpse of a campfire in the hills, their exodus came to an abrupt halt. The frightening figure of their captor stood out against the pale, moonlit clearing. The opaline glow of his toothy grin alone made them freeze, stupefied. But right above his devilish smirk were his sickening eyes, or really, where they should been – for the one that was still there smoldered like fire while the other was simply a dark crater pouring out venom. This was no usual catcher but an emissary from the sovereign himself, for his clothing was too ostentatious and his weaponry too ornate, which made his presence that much more awesome. As the terror took hold, they dropped to their knees. Whether it was thoughtful or just reflex, they timidly demonstrated subservience in a bid for mercy…
And then he awoke. (Where was the other?) Alone and feverish, he heard the slow advance of an overseer. Knowing that it meant he would soon be set to work in the throbbing heat, no matter his delirious state, he lay there for just a moment longer, contemplating his misery.
At their most peaceful, all States dreams of capture. Yet one State-form is nothing but unbridled conquest: the Archaic State. In a recent work, The Art of Not Being Governed, anarchist academic James C Scott describes the advent of such a State. Setting the scene, Scott details the alluvial plains of Southeast Asia where he says that the simplest states formed in fertile valleys. The key to Scott’s account is his political economy of their emergence, which emphasizes the mass cultivation of rice. Further dramatizing the centrality of rice for these states, Scott calls them ‘padi states.’ Among the many aspects of the padi state particular to Southeast Asia, there are two more general characteristics of padi states that are crystallized in the Archaic State: first, a heavy reliance on slave labor, which is secured through raiding and trading to produce the rice; and second, an inability to span elevation, which results in State power leaving a non-contiguous footprint. Abstracting these characteristics from what is historically specific to padi states in Southeast Asia, it becomes clear that the basic process of the Archaic State is not cultivation but conquest.
Raiding and Trading
A Burmese proverb, “Yes, a soil, but no people. A soil without people is but a wilderness,” exemplifies the first relevant characteristic of the padi state (Scott, Art of Not Being Governed, 70). Dispelling a common misunderstanding, this adage clarifies that manpower is the basic element of padi state political order, and not arable land. Of course land must be conquered and controlled, but labor-power is the source of power for two essential functions for the padi state: wealth, as the fruit of laborer’s work is taken as tribute, and security, as the workers are made to defend the resource intensive infrastructure needed for rice cultivation. And for this reason, the foremost indicator of a padi state’s power is its ability to capture and maintain slaves, which eventually leads to slave majorities or super-majorities in many padi states, as well as to slavery being such a common commodity that it serves as the medium of exchange. Yet this labor-power does not come voluntarily from workers hired or invited but is bled from slaves captured through war or trading and therefore requires a constant application of force, else the source of its power disappears back into the hills. State conquest thus avoids salt-the-earth wars of annihilation because humans are the State’s most precious resource and their lives should be preserved not wasted. But while labor-power fuels padi states, its power grows and recedes with the forces of capture and escape and not innovations in production. Because the padi state’s hunger for slaves is never satisfied, wars are not rare bloody events locked away deep in the annals of the State but myriad moments in a never-ending campaign compelled by the endless need for new labor. Continue reading “Chapter 1 – The Archaic State & The Priestly State”
Chapter 2 – The Modern State & The Social State
The Modern State
The machine emitted strange buzzing, whirring, and clicking sounds. The noises unsettled casual observers, but to the technician, it made beautiful music. She had listened to its movements so many times that she did not have to look at the monitor to pick out the slow set of clicks that marked the beginning of each cycle. Tck… Tck… Tck… Tck…
The machines had been a triumph over the archaic technology that came before it. It took the dreams of stargazers and a few steady hands to crank out the first prototypes. Even the wildly imperfect geometry of the early models still hypnotized onlookers.
She was charged with maintaining a machine from a newer line. The introduction of this version of the machines had ushered in a new era. In her land, authorities were crushed under the feet of rebelling peasants. As nobles bickered with the monarchy, a new class claiming to “represent the people” had seized power. But instead of quelling the waters, wars became more bloody. And there are still dissident factions trying to destroy the machines through sabotage or even cruder methods.
It is her task to keep the machine running. The rules are clear. Polarize the field. Alternate poles. Keep everything in orbit. She had been trained in basic geometric correction, which usually entailed resetting the aperture but sometimes required redacting elements. While no one told her how to control for the creeping tide of noise, she had come up with some makeshift bypasses. But if a long-term solution was eluding her, her fellow technicians were probably in just as much trouble…
Forging a Strange Complementarity
The political power of sovereignty goes through cycles. Imperial hymns sing of terrible kings’ conquests as well as the reigns of the great kings that follow. But let there be no mistake, terrible kings are only as stupid, brutish, ineffective, or disliked as good kings are inept, violent, and unpopular. That is because those labels merely indicate which of the two poles of sovereignty each ruler personifies. Horrible sovereigns are terrorizing magician-kings, and benevolent ones are jurist-priests. Much as the diplomat gets his way by switching between the carrot and the stick, sovereignty alternates between the two poles to maximize power. “Thus two kings in succession, by different methods, the one by war, the other by peace, aggrandized the state. Romulus reigned thirty-seven years, Numa forty-three: the state was both strong and well versed in the arts of war and peace” (Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 27). But the opposite is also true. A-cephalous societies evince a similar two-headed structure to ward off rather than reinforce State power. In the Americas, for instance, some groups had two chiefs, a war chief and a peace chief, whereby only one ruled at a time. Whenever one leader became too zealous, the people would mock him and follow the other leader. Especially in combination with the generalization of the ‘powerless’ titular king and the ritualization of war to disperse power rather than annihilate or enslave an opponent, these societies exemplify how the oscillations of sovereignty can be used against an accumulation of forces (Clastres, Society Against the State; Clastres, Archaeology of Violence).
Given the contrasting examples above, we can generalize by saying that the two poles of sovereignty form a complementarity. But the form and effects of that complementarity differ. Fortunately, the rhythm of the alternating poles produces a signature: the expression of the world that stands as the backdrop behind each State. A Roman ritual produces the clear signatures of the Priestly and Archaic States by repeating the practice of only allowing a single pole of sovereignty to rule at any given time: once a year, the flamen-dialis priest turns a blind eye for a day so that the naked Luperci can run wild and belt women with leather straps in a reenactment of the conquest of the Sabine women (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 27-30; 96-97). Obversely, the two poles can maintain independent signatures while remaining mutually reinforcing; for example, Varuna and Mitra nearly always exist as a pair in Vedic hymns. While the two gods are contemporaneous, or even co-present, they are still distinct and separate. So “Mitra may fasten you by the food,” but if a cow were bound without any special formula, “then she would be a thing of Varuna” because “the rope assuredly belongs to Varuna” (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 97; Satapatha Brahmana III 2, 4, 18). Yet the complementarities formed when the poles turn a blind eye, exist contemporaneously, or are a mixture of the two express a basic structure that can be easily extrapolated by elaborating on the Archaic and Priestly States. Other complementarities, however, produce State forms that do more than combine the poles: they pursue different effects by transforming the poles themselves. Continue reading “Chapter 2 – The Modern State & The Social State”
Part 2 – Crisis
Unlike the mythic State, governance today is no longer a question of divinity or even mastery. Empire is instead the force of prevention. What Empire prevents is the future, which it claims is only full of horror, chaos, and disappointment – where apocalyptic monsters or dystopian nightmares come true. The present, we are told, is in crisis. Paradoxically, Empire’s solution is to deepen the crisis in order to save the present. The experience of this drawn-out present is a combination of the profusion of difference paired with the vague notion that nothing is really changing. To achieve this confusing state – where the more that things change, the more they stay the same – Empire undertakes two abstract processes: circulation and management. These two processes are its essential modes of operation. Continue reading “Part 2 – Crisis”
Chapter 3 – Disemboweling the Metropolis
Leaning back as I took another puff on my cigarette, things went in and out of focus as the whiskey worked its way through my body. Still unable to shake a lingering desire for clarity, I jotted down some notes while playing it back in my head like a movie reel.
Disorientation. Most people’s initial experience of the Metropolis is disorientation. When you first hit the streets, you settle into the strangeness of it as if it was all just a dream. And while you are trapped in its dreamlike embrace, the Metropolis slowly reveals its erotic and morally ambiguous nature, a tempting but repulsive allure set against a background of violence.
Most of the smart ones leave. I hope they’re happy back on the farm. Others try to be good Samaritans. I gave up being a white knight a long time ago. There are some tall tales that shovel the regular bullshit about good detectives. But I’ve never seen one. And if I did, I’d probably hate their guts. Asking someone to get their hands dirty doesn’t work when they think they’re already helping. I don’t want to be a role model, I want to win. “By any means necessary.”
“Step one: ditch the false piety of doing good and start using your feet.”
A lot of red herrings had been thrown my way. The Metropolis makes it hard to trust anyone or anything. There are no longer any good guys, only con men looking for dupes unable to see through their whole nice-guy act. Everyone here has the potential to do bad, and more importantly, everyone has an angle. Nobody is innocent. Neutrality is the sure sign that someone is either playing it close to the chest or too clueless to figure out whose bidding they are unwittingly doing.
The last people to have faith in are the authorities. They lost control of the streets a long time ago. And whatever power they still exercise always plays into the hands of some higher power. Yet knowing the phone numbers of a few bureaucrats and cops is never a bad idea, as long as you don’t get too close – mistaking them for a friend or a confidant makes you worse than a singing jailbird. Information is their greatest weapon; it gives them leverage. It therefore isn’t wise to feed them even a breadcrumb because that’s how people like you and me end up in trouble to begin with. The bottom line: authorities are to be used, never trusted.
“Step two: track down the leads before the trail goes cold.”
The spoils of my stakeout were lying out on my desk like stolen loot. The killer had left a path of dead bodies in his wake. And in my search to find out whodunnit, I had uncovered every one of them. It all started when I stumbled across what remained of the once-terrifying king of the Archaic State after some of his slaves had gotten to him. My hunt continued when I spotted His Benevolence of the Priestly State after his blackmail and extortion racket went south. The Police and Publicity gave away the Modern State next, but the threads only started to unravel. I knew I was close when I spotted what remained of the Social State, broken and half-crazy, having fallen into a crowd of marginals, undesirables, and illegalists.
Just when I thought the trail went cold, I got the call. The anonymous caller told me to meet at an abandoned lot in a rather seedy part of downtown. But when I got there, I was too late. The killer had struck again. This time, however, I knew that the body would give me all I needed to know. But this operation would have to be a full-blown autopsy, for the answer was stuck deep in the veins of the Metropolis.
“Step three: disembowel the Metropolis.”
The Metropolis is the ground on which Empire operates. It exists on its own accord as a material reality, although it is improbable that the Metropolis would last long without Empire to govern it. Despite its material existence, the Metropolis is more a process, the process of composition that brings together material according to a specific set of rules. In particular, the Metropolis operates according to inclusive disjunction. Inclusive disjunction allows the Metropolis to connect otherwise incommensurate subjects, flows, temporalities, and visibilities without suppressing their differences. In assembling them, the Metropolis does not leave those incommensurate things unperturbed. Rather, Empire introduces things into the Metropolis by producing a plane of positivities that unfolds secured elements, exposes them to risk, and eliminates their futurity. Continue reading “Chapter 3 – Disemboweling the Metropolis”
Part 3 – Conflict
The point is not just to understand Empire but to destroy it. At least for a time, the walls of the State were under siege by critique, which mustered an army of reason targeting sovereignty’s mythical foundations. But rationality became a tool of governance as the State found ways to capture reason for its own purposes. The Spectacle packages every product through cynicism, and critique has become just another means to spread detachment and fatalist alienation. Yet even if Empire’s pervasive use of cynical reason does not completely damn the future of critique, it does serve as a cautionary tale for those engaged in the politics of truth and warns of the declining efficiency of forces backed by critique alone. It is then the destructive power of critique that should be recovered, its critical function, as it realizes a particular type of force – the force of conflict. Continue reading “Part 3 – Conflict”