Three New Publications

Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So…(1998) dir. Krzysztof Wierzbicki

Three new publications:
> “Philosophy, Science, and Virtual Communism,” Angelaki 20(4): Link, Liberated
> “The State, Concept not Object: Abstraction, Empire, Cinema, ” parallax 21(4): Link, Liberated
> “Confronting Connectivity: Feminist Challenges to the Metropolis,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12(5): Link (live Nov 19), Liberated.

Confronting Connectivity

The future is ‘connectivity,’ or so say today’s tech execs. “Soon everyone on Earth will be connected,” they declare, followed by worn promises of increased productivity, health, education, and happiness.[i] On its face, they are simply echoing the old trope of the level playing field repeated by empire builders from Niccolò Machiavelli to Thomas Friedman. What then is new? How connectivity forges horizontal connections between the virtual and physical worlds. As a consequence, the digital logic of combinatorial difference is now used as a tool of governance to “intensify, accelerate, and exacerbate phenomena in the world so that a difference in degree will become a difference in kind.”[ii] In sum, connectivity is the new techno-utopian business strategy that braids the physical with the virtual to create a socio-political empire of difference.

Google’s connectivity thesis is a sign that power is logistical – its authority resides in roads, cellphone towers, and data centers, which are overseen by legislators who keep the flows moving. Continue reading “Confronting Connectivity”

Hostis, Issue 2, Call for Papers: Beyond Recognition


Seeking recognition is always servile. We have little interest in visibility, consciousness raising, or populist pandering. Recognition always treats power as a give-and-take. On the one hand, the dispossessed use recognition as respite from exploitation; while on the other, the State expects its authority to be recognized as the first and final say. According to this logic: for the dispossessed to even get a step up, they must first acknowledge a higher power than themselves.

The particulars of our own time are even more obscene. Following the spread of economic rationality on a global scale, it is clear that the flow of forces has reversed. The State pornographically exposes its long-protected interior for others to abuse while lasciviously grooming what is beyond its regular reach. Recognition chastely reassures the State of its powers. All the while, the most banal State functions are farmed out to the highest bidder. So when their parking ticket is authored by a private corporation, those who seek recognition fall back on the State dictum that nothing good comes from the outside. Continue reading “Hostis, Issue 2, Call for Papers: Beyond Recognition”

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. Continue reading “New Writing on Colonialism”

Colonialism as an Abstract Machine

abstract machine

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 (Empire, 128-129). And while differences and identities are created by colonialism “as if they were absolute, essential, and natural,” they in fact function “only in relation to each other and (despite appearances) have no real necessary basis in nature, biology, or rationality” (129). Hardt and Negri do not go as far as to call Empire 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. Perhaps the most powerful example of the incorporeal transformation is the transformation that occurs when a judge declares the accused to be guilty of their crimes – transforming an alleged criminal into a real one (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 80-81).

We can now return to the interrupted scene of Oshima’s film, knowing more about the abstraction that wants to kill R. Continue reading “Colonialism as an Abstract Machine”



Escape is the oldest story of freedom, and it is among the simplest.[1]

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.[2] 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 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

metroLeaning 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.[1] 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”

Chapter 5 – Anonymity


Insinuation, The Underground Current of Incoherence
Radicalism’s tame but dignified existence in the early parts of nineteenth century America was a triumph for well-reasoned order. Immigrant intellectuals spread the heady ideals of socialism across the newly-opened frontier, founding mutualist or collectivist factory towns across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana and establishing revolutionary societies and educational clubs in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Allergic to lawbreaking and violence, the communalists set out to foster the best-ordered and most-moral dimensions of utopian society. But as corruption and industry grew inseparable, a new radical energy gathered in the darker corners of society. While the socialists kept outrunning the company mines and industrial looms, a growing underclass either unwilling or unable to escape the greed of indecent men toiled away.

Only a short decade after the Great War, the polite pretensions of American radicalism fell away. This shift was due to two things: first, the Panic of 1873, which threw hundreds of thousands of workers into destitution and unleashed their fury; and second, the arrival of anarchists. It takes the entrance of a protagonist, Johann Most, a fiery German anarchist, to give shape to the turbulence. Inspired by Most, a persuasive orator with scorching rhetoric, anarchists and other radicals brought ‘propaganda by the deed’ to America. ‘Propaganda by the deed,’ an idea on the lips of the European radicals of the time, is derived from the earlier Italian socialist Carlo Pisacane, who argues that “Ideas spring from deeds and not the other way around,” so that “conspiracies, plots, and attempted uprisings” are more effective propaganda “than a thousand volumes penned by doctrinarians who are the real blight upon our country and the entire world” (Graham, Anarchism, 68).

A determined Most found propaganda by the deed straightforward and published fiery celebrations of the growing practice of anarchist regicide – and these writings often landed in him jail. After a year and a half stay in an English jail for praising the assassination of Alexander II of Russia, Most immigrated to the United States and soon published a pamphlet entitled Science of Revolutionary Warfare–A Manual of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc, etc. Among these tools of destruction, he had a clear weapon of choice: dynamite. Writing in the Parsons’s Alarm, Most declared his love: “Dynamite! Of all the good stuff, that is the stuff! Stuff several pounds of this sublime stuff into an inch pipe (gas or water pipe), plug up both ends, insert a cap with a fuse attached, place this in the immediate vicinity of a lot of rich loafers who live by the sweat of other people’s brows, and light the fuse. A most cheerful and gratifying result will follow. … It is a genuine boon for the disinherited, while it brings terror and fear to the robbers. A pound of this good stuff beats a bushel of ballots all hollow – and don’t you forget it!” So with the arrival of Most, his dynamite, and propaganda by the deed, the anarchist siege against robber barons and the forces of the State commenced.

Striking fear in hearts of the three enemies of classical anarchism – The Church, The State, and Capital – radicals committed a remarkable number of regicides and other assassinations from the late 1870s through the early twentieth century. Yet the practice was not universally accepted in radical circles: pacifists, social democrats, and pragmatists hotly debated the principles and effectiveness of attacks on power.  Paul Rousse, French socialist and the first to coin the phrase propaganda by the deed, plays down violence when describing the concept’s realization. “Propaganda by the deed is a mighty means of rousing the popular consciousness,” he writes, because it serves as the pragmatism of the possible: as the masses are naturally skeptical of any idea as long it remains abstract, one must actually start a commune or a factory and “let the instruments of production be placed in the hands of the workers, let the workers and their families move into salubrious accommodation and the idlers be tossed into the streets,” after which the idea will “spring to life” and “march, in flesh and blood, at the head of the people” (Graham, Anarchism, 151). Echoing Rousse’s possibilism, Gustav Landauer argues that “no language can be loud and decisive enough for the uplifting of our compatriots, so that they may be incited out of their engrained daily drudgery,” and thus the seeds of a new society must be prefigured in actual reality to entice others the join (139). Propaganda by the deed thus has two intentionally distinct valences as either creative violence or persuasive prefiguration; one masks its anonymous force to avoid capture while the other loudly boasts about itself.

Our contemporary times are replete with radicals who have found their own boastful propaganda. Anarchists such as David Graeber speak about a new generation of activists that came of age during the anti-globalization movement who practice propaganda by prefiguration that ‘builds a new society in the shell of the old’ (as the popular IWW phrase goes). These ‘New Anarchists,’ as they are called, practice social justice and deep democracy although they cannot hum even a bar of The Internationale. Yet missing from this description are many radical tendencies that draw on the first valence of propaganda by the deed – to name a few, there are civilization-hating anarcho-primitivists, destruction-loving anarcho-queers, democracy-averse nihilists, and anti-organizational insurrectionists. There are many reasons why those elements are often disavowed or even denied by their radical relatives but one is obvious: these dissident tendencies draw their power from a dangerous source that resists legibility. Rather than constructing their propagandistic appeals on images of a well-ordered society constituted by a moral majority, these hidden elements draw on deeper and darker desires of nonexistence and disappearance. However, this opposition – the reasonable proposals of social anarchists and the excesses of their darker offspring – is stale, so perhaps there is a way to break through.

Is there a power of truth that is not just the truth of power? asks Gilles Deleuze (Foucault, 94-95). Written alternately in the language of anarchism: what is the propaganda by the deed if it is not just the deed of propaganda? The answer is found in a mode of communication whereby actions ‘speak for themselves’ – actions that need not be owned, named, or explained. Actions as expression without speaking subjects. Expressions that speak reason but do not prefigure. Expressions that speak passions but are not feelings. The expression that lingers when the thing expressed is nowhere to be found. In short: the force of anonymity. That is today’s dark propaganda by the deed. Continue reading “Chapter 5 – Anonymity”