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”


The State as a Virtual Object


PS: after discussing it w/ Gregg Flaxman, I’ve decided to “deontologize” the whole paper to sharpen the ontology/virtuality divide.

Returning to Foucault’s critique nearly thirty years later, we can reassess whether or not Marxist and Anarchist scholarship should remain condemned to hanging. Should Foucault’s arguments against state phobia be repeated, that it enables neo-liberalism and lacks singularity, or can Marxist and Anarchist state theory be rescued? Of course there are already numerous scholars who have squared Foucault with Marxist and Anarchist thought, and that such scholarship offers exemplary critiques of actually existing neoliberalism (one being our respondent today). Already in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Foucault’s work was incorporated into Structuralist Marxim and Italian Autonomist Marxisms, and more recently, Foucault’s theory of power has inspired the creation of Post-Anarchism.[1] In fact, Foucaultian scholarship is so thoroughly disseminated today that among Marxists and Anarchists, perhaps Fredric Jameson is the last holdout.

Instead of saving Marxism and Anarchism, then, what may be called for is a renewed defense of two things: state phobia, and non-empiricism. My defense of state phobia is political. While governmentality studies describe power well, they lack external grounds for critiquing that power. A study of governmentality can of course analyze power according to its own self-professed aims, but without something like Derridean deconstruction or Adornian immanent critique, the study is not political but descriptive.[2] Leading scholars says this themselves, expressing that studies of government “are not hardwired to any political perspective” but “are compatible with other methods” (Rose, O’Malley, Valverde, “Governmentality,” 101). Marxism, anarchism, or another other critique of power thus offers the external ground to challenge actually existing governmentalization, and state phobia provides the point of condensation for common struggles that share an anti-authoritarian critique of power. My defense of non-empiricism, which is less commensurate with the study of governmentality and is the focus of the rest of this paper, is methodological. Methodologically, I disagree with those scholars within governmentality studies who argue for a shallow definition of the state, which they justify through ‘brute’ empiricism. For these scholars, governmentality is a strictly “an empirical mapping of governmental rationalities and techniques” that “turn away from grand theory, the state, globalization, reflexive individualization, and the like” (99; 101). I contend that this empiricism leaves no place for the state as an abstraction, and the project of amending the study of governmentality to include abstraction requires revising its methodology.

Contrary to Foucault’s shallow definition of the state, French Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari treat the state as a ‘virtual object’ that is neither an ideological effect nor solely repressive – thus avoiding the crude terms of Foucault’s brief argument from the classic governmentality lecture. Continue reading “The State as a Virtual Object”

Foucault’s Targets: Functionalism and Fear




There are two targets to Foucault’s criticism: the classic state theories of Marxism and Anarchism, the first of which he charges with functionalism whereby the state is an epiphenomenal effect of a model of production, while the second he accuses of treating the state as a ‘cold monster’ to be universally feared (Security, Territory, Population, 109; 114fn39). In turn, Foucault suggests that political analysis should minimize the importance of the state, because perhaps “the state is only composite reality and a mythicized abstraction whose importance is much less than we think. What is important for our modernity, that is to say, for our present, is not the state’s takeover (éstatisation) of society, so much as what I would call the ‘governmentalization’ of the state” (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 109).[1]

Anglo-American social sciences have taken up Foucault’s approach in earnest. Interestingly, they took their initial inspiration from a single lecture on governmentality that comes from the much longer lecture series entitled Security, Territory, Population – the lecture I quoted from above.[2] Even without the associated three-year lecture series where Foucault completed a genealogy of the liberal rule, Anglo-Americans were still able to developed a highly original methodology for Foucaultian state theory that took seriously Foucault’s enjoinment to study ‘the governmentalization of the state.’ Continue reading “Foucault’s Targets: Functionalism and Fear”

“I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction”

Death by Hanging (Nagisa Ôshima) 1968 - 1


Death by Hanging (Nagisa Ôshima) 1968 - 2

This is the introduction to my paper, “The State as a Virtual Object,” which I will be presenting on Sunday at the Rethinking Marxism conference. Rather than posting the paper in full, I’ll release easily-readable excerpts now and the full paper next week.

Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film “Death by Hanging” begins with the execution of an ethnic Korean man, R. Miraculously, the hanging does not kill him; in fact, its only effect is that it erases his memory (08:23). Taken by surprise, officials debate the law and decide that execution is only just if a person realizes the guilt for which they are being punished (10:55). In an effort to make R admit his guilt for a crime he has no memory of committing, the officials simulate his crimes, which only leads to an absurd comedy of errors that exposes the racist, violent dimension of the nationalist law and history.

Continue reading ““I don’t want to be killed by an abstraction””



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”

Chapter 2 – The Modern State & The Social State

mod-st8The 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.[1] 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”