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”
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”
Sorry for all the talks lately, folks. The usual well-written talk looks terrible when read but sounds good when spoken. Unfortunately, that is the case here. So please forgive the repetitiveness of the prose and the way in which the arguments. Additionally, the talk is too long (approximately 1800 words too long, to be exact). Any suggestions for tightening up the talk would be greatly appreciated. awc
My project on escape is the result of a search for limit-concepts. By that, I mean concepts that make limits thinkable through two operations: marking those limits and providing a grammar of the limit.
Limits have always interested me. Luckily for me, a body of scholarship developed around the same time I began reading on the subject. During that time, The Bush Administration was using the 9/11 attacks to usher in sweeping political and legal changes. The uniqueness of those changes became apparent to me when academics clambered to make sense of them. In general, critical studies had long questioned the acceptance of things as “normal” in order to show how struggles and disputes over power are taken for granted. Yet such tools appeared unable to deal with the magnitude of the moment. We were living in an exceptional time, and not exceptionally good one either; in fact, it was a quite terrifying one (and it still is). So as the new normal was settling into place, yet in far less mundane ways that before, it was the boundary – or limit, as I mentioned before – between the normal and exceptional that jumped into the foreground. Reacting to this new environment, academics noted that we had entered a “state of exception” that marked the limit between previous norms and a string of conservative innovations. Of those exceptions were the legal classification of “enemy combatants” and the unauthorized war in Iraq, as well as less startling examples, such as the crackdown on migrant labor, the climate of fear painted daily in the palette of “terror alerts,” and governmental initiatives that sewed distrust by setting citizens to spy on their friends and neighbors.
Like “the state of exception,” the topic of my current work, escape, is also a limit-concept. Both concepts mark a boundary or a passage, yet escape is not about returning to norms but taking leave of them. It is about getting away. Leaving your worries behind. Running to the hills. Hitting the road to start a new life. Feelings that I’m sure many of us had in the wake of national traumas like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, or the many personal crises that punctuate our private lives.
Through the course of my project, Escape, I found that escape works as a limit-concept by marking a distinction within at least three important fields of inquiry. Those three fields are: first, American notions of freedom, second, the power of cultural politics, and third, models of social transformation. Furthermore, within the first field, notions of freedom, escape drives a wedge between two tendencies, one of them is the narrow definition of freedom premised on property-rights and market, and the other, an expanded definition of freedom as liberation that is born from struggle. Within the second field, cultural politics, escape reveals the nature of power as force that has been experimented with by contemporary queer theorists and post-marxists. And within the third field, social models, escape clarifies the interplay between composition and capture that highlights the role of lines of flight in revolutionary transformation.
Let me outline how escape works within each field, beginning with comparative freedoms.
Freedom is a cornerstone of American social, cultural, and political life. Tales that chronicle the quest for freedom span the expanse of the American imagination. Stories told about American’s most formative years always seem to emphasize a national desire for freedom: colonists are said to have sailed from Europe to establish “a city on a hill,” even if one could equally say that they fled Europe as a result religious persecution; and the declaration “Go West, Young Man!” is seen as an encouragement to seize new opportunities, while the forces of big city poverty and unemployment are spoken about vaguely (if at all) (Spanos, America’s Shadow; Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom).
This selective memory has only amplified in the contemporary era. As political scientist Wendy Brown notes, there was a putsch in the 1980s that further narrowed the definition of freedom. It is true that liberal notions of freedom have always been associated the concept with self-advancement. In the 1980s, however, freedom was made synonymous with free enterprise alone, yet in this narrowness, it was deployed to justify a wide political agenda, such as mercenaries and coups in Central America, the bloated Cold War military budget, savings and loan deregulation, and the so-called “right to work” attack on unionism (Brown, States of Injury, 9). Rather than contesting this narrowed definition of freedom, opponents answered back with charges of inequality. In that way, the Left largely abandoned its critique of domination and instead pursued amelioration programs; it stopped targeting the exploitation inherent to capitalism or the liberal state and instead came to rely solely on political programs that moderate the inequalities that systems of oppression create (10).
Furthermore, the battle between freedom and equality now pervades both political discourse and speculative fiction. On the one hand, there is an idea of freedom that is limited to private property and the market. This notion of freedom has become so accepted that last summer’s hottest genre, apocalyptic fiction, routinely devolves into libertarian survivalist fantasies, confirming Frederic Jameson’s assertion that it is easier for us to imagine an end to the world than the end of capitalism.
Against the narrow definition of freedom, escape suggests a way out. When freedom is thought through the lens of escape, freedom becomes a process of liberation rather than possessive individualism. Such freedom takes up the left critique of domination that was ditched by the liberal consensus and pairs it up with the desire for something better. To add a little historical depth, Walter Benjamin noted during a moment not much different than our own that “Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom;” but there is still a reason to dream because “The Surrealists have one” (“Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia (1927)”). And what Benjamin finds most refreshing about the Surrealists is their ability to “liquidate the sclerotic liberal-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom.” Moreover, the novelty of such a freedom is the Surrealist insistence that freedom “must be enjoyed unrestrictedly in its fullness without any kind of pragmatic calculation, as long as it lasts.” And in turn, because this freedom returns the “struggle for liberation” to its place as humans “simplest revolutionary form,” freedom becomes “the only cause worth serving.”
Yet this freedom, a freedom born of escape and liberation, has all but disappeared from speculative fiction. Few, if any recent apocalypse narratives are set in a world more appealing than this one. Yet liberatory dreams of freedom remains alive in cultural analysis, such as Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, a book that draws out the deep connections between surrealism and the black imagination. Such studies of the cultural imagination show how dashed dreams can still serve as a recurring source of inspiration. While the political project of People’s Liberation may be gone, freedom as a form a liberation that is born out of struggle lives on in the legacy of the sexual revolution thoroughly disseminated in contemporary culture.
[[[[[2) CULTURAL POLITICS / ANTI-POLITICS]]]]
So, the first field that escape intervenes within is freedom. Now let me explain how escape reveals power in the second field, cultural politics.
The dimension cultural politics I focus on is called “anti-politics.” Anti-politics categorically avoids elections and the official institutions of the state. But “anti-politics,” is a confusing name, as it both overlaps and diverges with “alternative politics.” Alternative politics has a home in the academy, and that home is the field of subculture studies, a field that encompasses youth studies and the study of punk. This field traditionally defines subcultures as the elements of a culture that are constituted in opposition to the mainstream. Yet such a definition has become untenable, as with the rise of postmodernism and the fragmentation of mass society, subcultures now routinely filter in and out of the mainstream. Consider that the punk band Green Day now has a broadway show, or that hiphop artist Sean “P Diddy” Combs’s radical slogan was “Vote or Die!” So, even if icons of alternative politics may not follow the dominant culture way of doing things, they have no qualms with collaborating with the mainstream.
In contrast to the ambiguousness of alternative politics, the aspiration of anti-politics is escape. Sometimes such an escape comes from the simple desire to be left alone. But more often, it’s a ruthless criticism of everything that counts as “politics.” Anti-politics may still protest, but it protests without demands. Anti-politics knows who the minority party is, but it wants all politicians gone. Yet despite its name, anti-politics does do politics, but not what counts as politics. This form of politics is interesting to me and has appeared in some of my published worked, most notably a piece that finds anti-political resonances between the discursive representation of pre-bellum slave resistance and Occupy.
One thing that my piece highlights is that anti-politics is not new. In turn, it claims a long theoretical lineage joined by a shared notion that force is the basic unit of political power. Anti-politics does a subversive reading of three modern political theorists: first, Niccolo Machiavelli and his sober analysis of how state violence underwrites the law; second, Karl Marx and his study of the objective mechanisms that drive the silent compulsions of the capitalist market; and third, Friedrich Nietzsche and his investigation into the power of life when it is stripped of moralist illusions. Force pervades each of these three theorists’s writing, but what is unique about their approaches is the common notion that force does not emerge from the state sui generis. Rather, they write about a force that exists as a material power. This force is often seized and put to use by a state, but it is equally likely that others make use of that force, and they often use it against the state. Like these thinkers, anti-politics begins from the basic insight that power exists outside the state and that to do politics one need not be recognized by the state. In addition to these thinkers, there are transitional figures within this intellectual history, namely anabaptists, utopian socialists, and anarchists, which I would be happy to talk about in the Q/A if anyone is interested.
Despite these modernist roots, anti-politics spends most of its time contending with contemporary theory. The two contemporary theorists I find essential for studying anti-politics are Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. Anti-politics utilizes Foucault’s study of governmentality. Foucault, so sure that power did not reside in the state itself, refused to study the state. In the place of the state, Foucault proposes studying government and its subsequent “state effects.” Foucault’s work is critical to understanding how power is generated in a whole array of things: architecture, the training of bodies, medical practice, demographics, and the list goes on. And Foucault’s near-obsessive cataloguing of the so-called micro-physics of power shows how individual practices must be developed and regularly maintained in order for larger networks of power to operate.
In contrast to Foucault, Deleuze is still willing to include the state in his analysis. However, this is because Deleuze provides a thicker system that both incorporates both practices of government and larger purely-conceptual entities such as states. Deleuze is able to account for these multi-scalar phenomenon, by which i mean micropractices and molar entities, with a sophisticated materialist metaphysics of difference. Also helpful for this project is Deleuze’s assertion that flight, or what I call escape, is the dominant tendency of difference. But rather than continuing expanding Deleuze’s metaphysics, it is important to note that anti-politics does not make use all of Deleuze’s expanded metaphysics, and does it need to. It is my contention that a few key ideas from Deleuze are enough to sustain anti-politics as a field of inquiry. In particular, I think Deleuze’s idea of affect holds the key to contemporary anti-politics.
Crystallizing insights Foucault and Deleuze, theorists in two fields, Queer Theory and Post-Marxism, have adopted affect as a political tool. Within queer theory, the feminist group Public Feelings has been using affect to study contemporary life. For them, affect provides a shared term to assess the type and quality of interactions across a social realm fragmented by political power. Through experiments in affect, Public Feelings groups test out ways to transform negative feelings born out of politics into resources for public life. These concrete studies are supplemented by developments in marxist and post-marxist theory. Marxist theoretical innovations use affect to expand economics from the wallet to other aspects of life; whether that be where the attention economy meets the bedroom or how cognitive capitalism influences digital culture. Both approaches promise to by fruitful for the study of anti-politics, as they not only escape politics as usual but totally reconfigure the political altogether.
[[[3) SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION / COMPOSITION]]]]
I have shown how escape intervenes within the concept of freedom and anti-politics, now let me show you how it provides a unique model for social transformation.
To begin, there numerous models of society: there are much-maligned base-superstructure models that show how humans are bound together through economic activity; there are anthropological models based on theories derived from concrete situations; there are behavioralist models that scientifically extrapolate from observed behavior; and the list goes on. That models I have employed in my published work map nonlinear historical change. And what is common to those models is compositional analysis, a form of analysis that looks to the potentials produced by the cycles of composition and decomposition within material systems. I have found that escape enhances this analysis, fine-tuning its search for potential.
For a now-classic case of compositional analysis, it is helpful to first go to Italy. In the 1950, 60s, and 70s, Italian academics completed workers surveys to determine the political potentials of ongoing struggles. These surveys looked at four interconnected dimensions: (1) the specific character of struggles [content, direction, development & circulation, bypass technical regulation, assert independent wrkr power]; (2) how different struggles overlap [interact as parts; redefine each other; subvert; combine]; (3) the rapport between workers and supposedly representative institutions [unions, parties; struggle does not original from them; often struggle against]; (4) capitalist response to struggle [social planning, technology; unemployment; social transformation in general]. [Zerowork intro 1975, in Midnight Oil 1992 pg 111-2]. When put together, this analysis expresses the “collective subjectivity of struggles” (Shukaitis / Negri MBM: Imagination Machines 23). Subsequent class composition analysis has been done of workers in Mexican Maquiladoras (Pena), the subjects of development in Africa (Federici & Barchiesi), Careworkers in Spain (Precarias a la Deriva), and in Asia’s “Special Development Zones” (Katsiaficas) to name a few.
Apparent in every one of these analyses is that composition is not only an analytical category but as also a political category (Mezzarda np). In particular, focusing on cycles of composition and decomposition zeros in on the specific forces that make and unmake power in each case. Moreover, in connection with anti-politics, compositional analysis also highlights which forces emerge autonomously from official institutions. Furthermore, through compositional analysis, I have identified a key dynamic between two particular forces. I call these two forces “escape” and “capture.” Together, the forces of escape and capture describe a specific dynamic of struggle, and point to an interesting set of potentials.
Capture follows from a cultural definition of the state. In contrast to functionalist models, which are too case-specific to offer guidance to a general theory of escape, a cultural definition provides the depth that comes with cultural analysis. My initial formulation of the state comes from George Dumezil’s comparative mythology of Indo-European sovereignty, which identifies a two-headed sovereign in classic myths. One of those heads is a terrifying king that rules through conquest, the other is a benevolent priest that rules through holy contracts. He further abstracts these figureheads into two poles, and together the two poles work together in complement to “animate the state with a curious rhythm” (D&G’s quote). From this, we can say two important things about the state: first, it is responsive force that relies on an already-existing power-source –or, to use a Burmese proverb, “a soil without people is but a wilderness” – and second, the state rules by making that prior force predictable, which is does so through law & contracts.
The cultural definition of the State suggests a fruitful interpretation of contemporary governance, often called neo-liberalism. Theorists from a number of backgrounds have provided suggestions for how neo-liberalism differs from prior modes of governance. Some focus on the permissiveness of neoliberalism (Mitchell Dean, Slavoj Zizek), others on heaping risk and debt (Ulrich Beck, David Harvey), and still others focus on its global characteristics (Immanuel Wallerstein, Saskia Sassen). Escape, however, identifies two things in neoliberalism that these other perspectives fail to highlight: first, neoliberal governance uses an apparatus of capture to “manage the outside,” and the products of capture compose the precarious substrate of captial; and second, certain cycles of decomposition point to escape routes that have been made partially invisible. Therefore, it is with escape that I hope to refocus the study of neoliberalism on productive cycles of struggle.
OVERVIEW OF PROJECT
Now that I have outlined a new notion of freedom, the power of anti-politics, and composition’s escape routes, let me give you a broad overview of my work on escape.
Escape is constructed in two parts. The first part is a diagnosis, and the second part explores three lines of escape. The diagnosis uses my cultural definition of the state to outline five different state forms. Those five states are the archaic state of conquest, the priestly state of contract, the modern state, the social state, and empire. Knowing which state-form dominates is essential to knowing where to look for escape, as compositional analysis suggests that escape is immanent within each form.
After I establish that Empire is the state-form that dominates our current moment, I describe what is unique to Empire. First, I show how Empire sits upon what I call “The Metropolis,” which is distinct from The Social that dominated the 20th century. While The Social provided guarantees, The Metropolis sheds them. While The Social rewarded virtuous subjects, The Metropolis spreads through non-virtuous behavior. I then trace five veins of the Metropolis to reveal lines of escape that not only avoid escape, but suggest new anti-political forms of political freedom.
The second part of the dissertation explores three escape routes that follow these lines of flight. First, I look to anonymity as a new form of self-expression. This account uses the place of anonymity in digital culture to further pinpoint forms of subversion and sabotage unique to today. Second, I look to logics of sound to perform a compositional analysis. Of all the senses, I found that sound is the richest source for describing how seemingly contradictory elements can exist in co-presence. Third, I look to recent refusals of identity and interiority. In particular, feminist experiments in public feelings suggest how to make intensity and affect political.
CASE STUDY 1: SCOTT
To give you a taste of the argument, I have two case studies to present.
In a recent work, anthropologist James C Scott outlines a barebones model of the Archaic State. Setting the scene, Scott focuses on the alluvial plains of Southeast Asia. It is in these fertile valleys, Scott argues, that some of the earliest and simplest states formed. In these states, mass cultivation of rice was the key to their success. To dramatize the centrality of rice for these states, Scott called them “padi states.”
And there are two forces that make up the padi state, which also describe the Archaic State in general. The first is slave labor, which forms the backbone of the padi state, and is secured through raiding and trading. The second force is the geographically bound power of the padi states found in its noncontiguous footprint, which is a result of its capacity to span flat planes and inability to span elevation. More abstractly, the Archaic state is therefore characterized by human conquest and geographic power projection.
If we look more closely at labor-power, it serves two essential functions in the padi state: first, labor-power is used to defend the resource intensive infrastructure needed for wet-rice cultivation, and second, labor-power expended in farming results in tribute to the ruling dynasty. But these warrior-workers are not invited or hired, they are slaves capture through war and exchange. Slavery is so pervasive in these states that it often becomes the standard by which all other products are measured, and slaves often make up the vast majority of padi state populations (57, 60, 75% in some former Thai states).
Alternately, geography holds the key to the padi’s state political influence. To visual the way the padi state exerts power, image the glow of a lightbulb (an example Scott borrows from Benedict Anderson) (59). Now that you have the image in your head, consider two attributes of its light: first, that the light dims and fuzzes as it travels farther from its source; and second, that there are no clear edge to the light, but rather a continuous gradient that fades to black. These attributes illuminate the architecture of the padi state’s state space, which Scott describes according to friction (43-50). The ideal terrain for padi state politics is a frictionless flat plane, which is easily traversed by oxcart. Or even better than a plane, maybe a network of fast waterways where the ‘light’ of influence spreads without interruption. In contrast to the flat plane, sharp changes in elevation or the difficult terrain of swamps and thick vegetation form physical obstacles that act as a fetter to political control. These obstacles introduces friction that slows down or even blocks sovereign influence.
Because elevation and difficulty of terrain, rather than great-circle distance describes the effort required to travel these spaces, residents of padi states often describe their travel according to associated activities, such as “three rice-cookings” or “two cigarette-smokings,” rather than geometric measurement (ten feet, or ten miles) (48).
And in those descriptions lies the key to escape form the Archaic State. Anthropologists have found that the force of conquest begets a counter-force, the force of escape. And because the Archaic State secure slaves through conquest or exchange, runaway have an inbuilt knowledge of how to escape for good. First, they escape to the hills. Elevation is initially a buffer between the state and the fugitive, but it also provides a whole different way of life. Different crops, different cultivations techniques, different forms of social organization, different religions. xxxxx LORE, STORIES< GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL ETC ETC
And for centuries, this life away from the state flourished, with the state losing its battle against friction. In Burma, for instance, colonial military campaigns that were fought from November to February saw their kingdom shrink to a quarter or an eight of its size as roads became impassable in May through October (61).
But some time in the middle of the 20C, everything changed. Distance-demolishing technology made it possible to do what was previous impossible. The distance-demolishing technologies of resource extraction, transportation, flight, modern weapons, communication, and information revolutionized conquest. Nearly everywhere has been explored, and of the places left to hide, few provide the means for a bountiful life away from long arm of the law.
CASE 2: Psychological Prosthetics
My goal today is to move past the most popular myths of escape and suggest a less obvious escape route. It begins with a quote from Feminist Sci-fi author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which explore the desire to escape among other themes. Very early in the novel, the narrator explains why a window to the outside it made out of shatterproof glass: “It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge” (8).
Or to restate it in terms of question: how can the outside within yourself be found and turned into a tool of escape?
One ongoing feminist project, Public Feelings, seeks to do just this. To express the style of their engagement, consider a few Public Feelings slogans, “Depressed? It Might Be Political” or “Exhausted? It Might Be Politics” (Zorach, “Make it Stop”). And with the interventions built around these sayings, public feelings works to “depathologize negative affects so they can be seen as a possible resource for political action” (Cvetkovich, 460).
In the summer of 2007, their Chicago Cell convened a group art show entitled Pathogeographies. The point of the show was to perform a geographic survey to get a reading “the emotional investments, temperatures, traumas, pleasures, and ephemeral experiences circulating throughout the political and cultural landscape” (Pathogeographies “FAQ”).
Among the many artists, scholars, and other participants, one group exhibited a striking project, which they called “Psychological Prosthetics.” Psychological Prosthetics (or PP in short), was a seemingly corporate enterprise made up of two artists who looked as if they had just walked off the page of a big pharma magazine ad onto the streets of Chicago. Dressed in white lab coats and sporting sleek suitcases, they approached potential clients with the well-rehearsed pitch: “hello, I’m from psychological prosthetics, would you like to try one of products?”
The point of artists Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s project was to explore people’s so-called emotional baggage. And to do so, they armed themselves with provoking rhetoric and glossy handmade art objects to engage potential collaborators. While on the street, the veil of corporate medical authority allowed them to start a conversation with strangers, and many stranger’s early suspicions melted away as they became more interested in determining whether PP was earnest or a parody. And as the strangers entered the personal space of the PP representative, they would discuss how best PP could “help handle your emotional baggage in political times.”
Psychological Prosthetics developed a number of products and protocols, each designed to elicit a different type of response. Four of their products were: one, the 30 Second Rant Recorder, “an electronic hand-made device to activate your outrage;” two, the PP Band Aid, “to bandage shame and soothe apathy;” three, PP Lean On Me, “to lean back and control your anxiety through a series of resin forms, shaped for your body to lean on;” and four, custom designed luggage, “made to handle your emotional bandage.”
Though smartly packaged and well-thought out, it is important to look at an actual interaction, as Psychological Prosthetics was designed to produce encounters reminiscent of the Situationist dérive or Italian workers surveys.
Let me set the scene:
A middle-aged woman in a lab coat with a welcoming smile and slight british accent approaches a group of tourists as if to give them a pitch. After a few round of laughter at PP’s canned pitches, such as “Would you like to see our 30 Second Rant Recorder to activate your outrage?,” they finally ask if she is in fact serious. Dee sincerely responds, “we are seriously interested in helping you explore your emotional baggage,” the group of women step in closer, interested. Dee picks the most interested woman and offers her some custom luggage. To pick a design, they walk through a questionnaire. At one point Dee asks, “Would you like it to have a backpack” (she gestures as if throwing her emotions on her back to carry it around). Next, with a wide gesture, Dee asks “would you like a moving company? how large is it?” The woman responds, “well, sometimes it is quite large! and I don’t know if I would want to keep it on my back, maybe i can keep it on the ground so I can let go of it” (and she gestures like she’s dropping wheeled luggage). And as the questionnaire continues, “is it toxic?” “would you like to send it anyone?” Dee is able to gain insight into both the woman’s private feelings and her place in the general emotional landscape.
There are two important outcomes of this encounter and the many other encounters organized by psychological prosthetics. The first in an affective reconfiguration of how to talk about feeling. And the second is a new diagram for mapping to desire to escape. The affective reconfiguration comes from turning private feelings into aspects of public lives. The prosthetic aspect of the project highlights this transformation. As Marshall McLuhan argues, technology is like a prosthetic, in that it serves as an extension of the human body. Just as a walking stick is an indispensable part of a blind persons’s faculty of sight, psychological prosthetics creates a new way to extend feeling from private emotion to public resource. PP’s custom luggage allowed feelings to be contained by easily-identified containers, which also makes it appear to exist external to the person who feels it. In other words, it escapes possessiveness. Once externalized, the baggage may remain property of the owner, but can also be carried in a bag like tool, disposed of if it’s toxic, or be sent to intervene in another situation.
The distinction between inside and outside is further blurred when the emotions are made into a public resource. Feelings that we are told to hide away in isolation, like the sadness of depression, are no longer stuck to an individual person. Made collective, the feelings are evaluated on the social register rather than the personal. Maybe outrage is the proper response to rampant climate denial. Perhaps exhaustion is an appropriate emotion for overworked, underpaid Americans. And on the flip side, what would we then say about the mental state of a normal, productive citizen that happily contributes to mainstream society in such exceptional political times?
For all its good, Psychological Prosthetics does not offer a complete path of escape. Even if it was just a parody, PP was just another corporation offering a pill or device to fix your problems. To further explore the escape routes they identified with the collaborators, the lab cuts will have to come off, and the sleek art objects left behind.
But PP does help contaminate the neat categories of inquiry I listed at the beginning of the talk: freedom as liberation, the anti-politics of affect, and social transformation through decomposition. The psychological prosthetics project suggests three particular insights about escape: first, that escape is a shared feeling; second, that escape is a positive micropolitics; and third, that escape occurs through undoing.
Let me briefly explain each three:
First, escape is a shared feeling. When PP collaborators discussed their emotional baggage, most were happy to get rid of it. For them, freedom was not possession or ownership, but letting go and sharing in the emotional life of others. This is reminiscent of Jane Bennett, who describes the re-enchantment of modern life as letting go and leaving traces of oneself in others, dispersed in their hearts and minds (Cultural Values article on Enchantments). And when escape is transformed from private object to public resource, freedom therefore becomes a form of personal dis-accumulation. And liberation as dis-accumulation is a provocative alternative to the free market freedom of today.
Second, escape is a positive micropolitics. Psychological Prosthetics’ compositional surveys show the gaps and fissures the arise in official narratives that give life to the micropolitical. While neoliberalism aspires to capture all intensity, the Pathogeographies show was able to create what they called “magical linkages and utopian intensities” that “extend our political horizons” (“FAQ”). The Institute for Infinitely Small Things, for instance, dropped off bags and boxes labeled “unattended object” in a variety of neighborhoods to measure different community’s response. Because these projects anticipated and evaded forms of capture unique to today, they were able to register specific micropolitical practice that were discussed, distributed, and disseminated into the everyday.
And third, escape occurs the undoing. Psychological Prosthetics ultimately affirmed the sentiment of Margaret Atwood, who suggested that escape is less about where one goes than what one undoes. Because running away is no longer an option, escape now explores the outside that is created by a common cause. For some, it is creating a new society in the shell of the old. For others, it is the shared disentanglement of the matrix of domination. Either way, because escape takes leave, it need not understand what seeks to eliminate, it only need to know how to get rid of it.
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