New Writing on Colonialism


Expansions on the earlier State and as a Virtual Object paper. — PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.

Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have a useful illustration of a similar abstraction in their 2000 book Empire. According to Hardt and Negri, colonialism works as an abstract machine (a term synonymous with abstraction or virtual object). The abstract machine of colonialism, they say, creates a dialectic of identity and alterity that imposes binaries divisions on the colonial world.[1] The identity of the European Self, for instance, is produced through the dialectical movement of its opposition to and power over a colonial Other. The prevailing critique of colonialism in the early 20th century responded itself dialectically by revealing that the differences and identities created by colonialism appear “as if they were absolute, essential, and natural” but are in fact incorporeal and therefore function “only in relation to each other and (despite appearances) have no real necessary basis in nature, biology, or rationality.”[2] Hardt and Negri name two conclusions to this dialectical critique: first, that the European Self must continually use material violence against its Other to sustain the dialectical appearance of corporeal power, and second, that such a negative dialectic of recognition is hollow and prone to subversion. But reality itself is not dialectical, only colonialism is, Hardt and Negri contend.[3] And because dialectics is one only mode in which abstract machines operate, they suggest that the effective response to colonialism is not a negative antithesis, such as the negative project of négritude or Sartrean cultural politics. An effective response, they say, is the reciprocal “counter-violence” of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X, which produces a separation from the movement of colonialism. Such violence is not itself political, yet the violent reciprocity of “a direct relation of force” breaks the abstract bond holding together incorporeal colonial power and poses a disharmony that arrests the colonial dialectic while opening a space in which politics can emerge.[4]

As Hardt and Negri go on to describe Empire, they do not call it an abstract machine, but perhaps we should. Customary definitions of Empire usually focus on a polycentric sovereignty of global governance as it intersects with the postmodern production of informatized, immaterial, and biopolitical products. In contrast, I contend that Empire arrives as an entirely incorporeal entity that lacks its own body and is deprived of a material existence to call its own. However devoid of existence, Empire persists as the force behind a concept for organizing and directing the capitalist world market. As a result, Empire operates through management and circulation, but it is not extensive with its products.

Opposing Empire surely includes the tasks used by the Governmentality School: outlining its material practices, its effects on behaviors, and its shared logic of governance. A philosophical definition of Empire, however, would also typologize it as a virtual object. In determining Empire’s mode of operation, the task would be to abstractly identify how it produces incorporeal transformations in the open ecology of contemporary power. Considerable research already mixes the empirical and virtual aspects of Empire while studying the feedback and capture of cognitive capitalism, the free labor of the digital precariat, the anonymous networks of computerized corporate control, and the ballooning surveillance assemblage of states.[5] Within this work, however, the Governmentality School’s eliminativist materialism and Deleuze’s philosophy of the virtual causes tension: one is motivated by scientific certainty, and the other, utopian creation. While governmentality may descend onto a state of affairs to detail a truer picture of contemporary power, philosophy ascends to create just as real images through abstraction. The key difference is that only philosophy, similar to Fanonian counter-violence, creates a formally asymmetric relationship with the world as it is presently constituted.

[1] Hardt and Negri, Empire, 128-129.

[2] Ibid, 129.

[3] Ibid, 128.

[4] Ibid, 131-132.

[5] Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity, 2010); Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto, 2004); Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Kevin D. Hagerty and Richard V. Ericson, “The Surveillant Assemblage,” British Journal of Sociology 51, No. 4 (December 2000): 605–622.


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