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On Massumi’s The Power at the End of the Economy

Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015).

Given the amount of self-citation in this slim volume, it is clear that Massumi wants the economic to bridge key interests in his recent and forthcoming work, most importantly questions of the ecology, the non-human, and war. Such interests, of course, lead Massumi inexorably toward a confrontation with Deleuze and Guattari’s other major disciples, Hardt and Negri. One of the difficulties that I have with this book is that it tries to bury this confrontation rather than subjecting it to rigorous interrogation. Perhaps this will appear in a later work. In any case, the crucial argument with Hardt and Negri appears toward the end when Massumi insists that that the figure of the activist should supplant that of the militant. The activist, he argues, conditions the situation in which events may arise, seeding the world with radical potential; by contrast, militants try to discipline events, in effect subjecting them to a rationalization that cuts off the proliferation of potential. It should be no surprise that Massumi turns this discussion back to the divide between anarchists and Marxists, an argument that we can date to back to the 1860s with the argument between Marx and Bakunin. More on that historical period and this book in a moment. What we should note here first is that his turn to the activist fits his argument overall in that its focus falls on what Massumi calls the “churning” of “infra-individual” “bare activity”—that is, the constant internal cycling of affects within an individual that do not rise to the level of consciousness. In an excellent discussion of this non-conscious affective activity, Massumi describes a human reacting to an unexpected encounter with a bull (a choice that one would assume is meant to recall the Spanish Indignacios and the horror of the 21st century capitalism’s bull market ideology). To my mind, this portion of the book can be read as a brilliant explication of Deleuze’s passing reference to Sartre in his final essay “Immanence: A Life…” The churn of affect, movement, and potential in the encounter with the bull captures what it means to constitute a plane of immanence. Indeed, anyone familiar with Deleuze’s oeuvre will find the book a fascinating reworking of key texts, including a lengthy engagement with Hume and sympathy.

My problems with the book, then, are not with its dazzling discussions of affective emergences and inventions, but rather with its analyses of the economic and of neoliberalism—a term that seems to hold talismanic rather than explanatory qualities here. Massumi begins with Foucault’s explication of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics, a fascinating seminar held in nearly forty years ago. As insightful as Foucault’s reflections may be for their time, they do not seem an adequate basis for an analysis of the contemporary economic moment in a historical sense. That said, such an analysis does not seem to be of much interest for Massumi. This book is largely a philosophical reflection on… one model of economic thought? A political regime (which one)? An individual experience of a political economic moment in a broader cultural context? It is unclear. The discussion of economic thought often turns to Jocelyn Pixely’s Emotions in Finance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), which is never explicated or situated in terms of its ideas but rather dropped in the text aphoristically, as though it represents all economic thought rather than a particular set of developments in the economic analysis of finance. There’s a general suspicion of market rationality—fair enough!—but in a way that is so broad that it is effectively meaningless. Who defends market rationality and how they defend it, however, is not here a subject of analysis.

Instead, the jumping off point is Foucault’s notion of an entrepreneurial subject. Such is certainly an aspect of “the neoliberal subject,” but it represents a particular view of that subject, one that has been crafted and constructed for us to take in. This issue generates the book’s most interesting discussion in terms of its economic content, an analysis of how neoliberalism pushes discipline beyond the individual subject to construct new forms of control. Massumi’s term for this is ‘priming,’ which ‘[implants] certain presuppositions in the situation … and [activates] certain tendencies in the participants’ (28). In my book, I’ve reflected on this issue a great deal—albeit in a different historical moment—but I tried to continually return these questions to the interaction of subjective experience and work-discipline. In other words, I tried to highlight the ways that economic relations affect one’s experience. One might see this, following Massumi’s account of the bull, as trying to describe how authors create a plane of consistency in which these subjective potentials of a new set of economic relations open up. I fell back upon the language of ‘discipline’ in an attempt to reimagine a much more loose, non-institutional experience of discipline by focusing on the construction of particular kinds of discourses—i.e., ‘presuppositions in the situation’—to which plots and characters respond, most especially in the subjective construction of various characters—i.e., ‘tendencies in participants’. Thus one of the useful aspects of his reframing neoliberal discipline as priming is that it opens up space for deviance. What remains unclear, however, is how multivocal this openness to deviance may be. It seems historically as useful for reinforcing certain tendencies as it does for the construction of resistance.

But let’s bracket that question for the moment to examine two other fundamental notions here that could also use a little more historical reflection: pain/pleasure, and human capital. Massumi’s account of pain and pleasure builds from Hume and his understanding of the passions, and then leaps to the contemporary moment. His term for the comparison of the two is ‘hedonic,’ which is understandable if also curious since the notion of utilitarian calculus never appears once. Given the centrality of this hedonic comparison to political economy, it is difficult to see how or why we must jump from Hume in the mid-eighteenth century to the twenty-first. It is also surprising that, given the competition between passions mapped within the discussion of Hume, that there is no mention of Albert O. Hirschman’s classic The Passions and the Interest, which details the rise of interest as a concept through the notion of the combat between passions. Curious too is the lack of connection of the pain/pleasure contrast to the rise of marginalism, where these tradeoffs were first rationalized using price mechanisms and generated the prevailing theory of employment that gave us the Great Depression and that Keynes dismantled in his General Theory.

And this takes me back to the activist/militant question. In some ways, Massumi’s account here is very ‘60s—that is, very 1860s. His essential response to these issues is what he calls “a politics of the dividualism”:

It would find ways of tending tendencies, in order to navigate the zone of indistinction between choice and nonchoice in such a way as to effect modulations of becoming that producing self-justifying surplus values of life: pulses of life experienced as worth the living by virtue of the event they are, immanent to the event, as a function of its immediate experiential quality, without any tribunal of judgment hanging over them, sovereignly purporting to justify them extrinsically. (35)

With such an agenda, one can see here why the activist would outweigh the militant (and again, why he includes a running comment on the competition between anarchism and Marxism). I appreciate these ideas, but they too need some additional reflection to expose points of difference from this twenty-first century moment and the closing paragraphs of Walter Pater’s 1869 The Renaissance. This is not necessarily a critique, I suppose, especially as Pater’s ideas here grew out of his reflections on William Morris—and, beyond that, it is difficult not to be moved in some very Deleuzian ways when reading the Pater of the Conclusion—but Pater’s ideas and the rise of marginalism are also deeply intertwined. This is the argument of Regenia Gagnier’s excellent The Insatiability of Human Wants, and Gagnier’s book kept coming to mind as I read, both because Massumi’s political/aesthetic project so insistently recalls both Pater’s insistence that we should “get as many pulsations into the given time” through aesthetic discrimination and because his general notion of the economic seems as applicable to British marginalism as to twenty-first century notions of market rationality.

The key distinction may be that contemporary economic thought accords much more importance to questions of finance than nineteenth-century political economy ever did. The introduction of the dividual in Deleuze and in Massumi is certainly of a piece of the random walk and such, but the outcome of this piece returns us to Paterian aesthetics with an emphasis on depersonalization. So we no longer try to ‘get’ pulsations as allow them to happen. But that takes us into questions of the event and decision that I’ll defer for another day.

On McQueen and abjection

An interesting piece today in the Guardian by Carole Boyce Davies titled “12 Years a Slave fails to represent black resistance to enslavement.” Davies’s argument speaks in part to questions I raised in “Militants and Cinema” about McQueen’s decision to engage with resistance through abjection. Davies nicely describes how  McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s text chooses scenes of physical abjection while eliding instances and spaces of resistance:

Northup indicates that not a day passed without him contemplating escape. References to the Great Pine woods are a constant symbolic evocation of the possibilities for living elsewhere than on the plantation. The journey between that “free” space and the plantation marks the boundaries between being free and being enslaved. […]

But in focusing so much on the plantation, the film misses the Great Pine woods, as free space symbolically and literally.

Further, she notes, McQueen’s film omits Celeste, a slave who lived for months in the Great Pine woods and instead focuses on the awful abuse dealt to Patsy:

Patsy is seen with her back flayed and her skin lacerated in a horrible scene depicting the degradation of the black female body. Northup may leave the plantation in the end, but there is no chance of any positive outcome for her. Rather the gratuitous display of the black woman’s raped and flayed body is chosen to represent the horror of slavery. The film’s overwhelming graphic presentation of these scenes – minus the other resistance stories – presents largely complicit black women, singing and picking cotton or cowering in fear.

Davies pinpoints what I think is a central problem when it comes to McQueen’s work, both here and in Hunger: the display of bodies undergoing violence as the means of representing a political resistance, in large part by soliciting a sense of horror, and, in what seems an increasingly important term for McQueen’s work, shame. It is not that his films are not moving and powerful, but that they use narrative and film conventions that limit their ability to engage with their social, political, and historical contexts.

Perhaps chief among these are the conventions of art cinema: it’s important that Northup is not an action hero for McQueen to achieve the affects he desires. One drawn out sequence in which Northup almost dies as a result of an arrested lynching highlights the degree to which McQueen wishes us to experience the injustices of slavery through a character’s inability to act or control his life. The film thus seems to me, in retrospect, as a series of sequences in which Northup experiences slavery’s dehumanizing attempts to exert total control over a person. The one exception–when he beats an overseer–generate such dire consequences that its inclusion emphasizes the same point, that such catharses are useless given the realities of slavery, and, most especially, for a film that means to engage with those realities.

But this attempt to undermine the potential drive toward the narrative conventions of the action film–i.e., Django Unchained–with those of art cinema means putting narrating and reflecting on resistance off-limits. For me, to learn of these omissions from Northup’s text is far from surprising. McQueen’s films are physically focused, body focused, and the physicality of 12 Years a Slave tries to communicate the incommunicable horrors of slavery.  But these omissions also indicate that the body remains a continuing limit for McQueen’s attempts to engage with history and politics. In some senses, this is, of course, true: individuals have often been reduced to bare life over the course of human history. But bare life is not the entirety of the story, nor the entirety of the stories that McQueen has chosen to tell. That was the point I tried to get at in my essay, and it is the point that Davies makes so well here.

Thoughts on David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

David Harvey. Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to urban revolution

Harvey’s latest book is a useful synthesis of his seemingly disparate work in Marxist theory, geography, and social justice. His argument will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work, e.g. crises of capital accumulation drive urbanization projects directed by a collusion of the state and finance; resistance to such reorganization of urban life offer the clearest historical path to revolutionary change. Although these urbanization projects may seem like the basis of urban life, Harvey rightly notes that it is the work of the people within these communities that makes up urban life. What’s new here is how his work on the construction of social life coincides explicitly with Hardt and Negri’s work on the common in Commonwealth. In effect, Rebel Cities bridges Harveys work on neoliberalism, finance, and urbanism and Hardt and Negri’s expansion of social labor.

For me, the payoff of this convergence is Harvey’s discussion of the production of the common and capitals continual attempts to enclose and appropriate the social goods produced by this labor in monetized form. The key term here, and also crucial in Commonwealth, is rent, specifically monopoly rent. Harvey returns to a key passage in Marx on the monopoly rents that wine producers can extract based on their control of particular environments and products; Marx himself links this ability to command a premium on unique products to artistic and intellectual production, but Harvey extends Marx’s approach to explain how neoliberal urbanization projects extract value from the social life produced by their inhabitants, dispossessing these workers in the process: capital appropriates the social world produced by common labor as a marketable culture and experience, a process that encompasses urbanization projects and gentrification. The result, for Harvey, is that the right to the city is not a vague demand for spaces owned by others but rather a right to the common world that we produce. The corollary here is that organizing should take place at the social level as well as the economic, i.e. coalitions that cross economic and social spheres.

Motivated in part by Occupy Wall Street, Rebel Cities includes occasional pieces Harvey produced over the last year. These aren’t terribly interesting, but they do help situate an interesting turn in Harvey’s work: an explicit engagement with contemporary anarchist thought. Once we move outside the factory as the organizing space, we cannot avoid anarchist thought, and with OWS especially, not only because David Graeber receives a mention here, but because Harvey also responds to OWS’s more general use of anarchist thought. (For one prominent example, look at Chris Hedges’s use of Bakunin and Kropotkin in his TruthDig columns.)

So although were used to talking about Marx in academia, Harvey clearly sees that we have to address a broader question in the left about how power should be structured and used. As such, he argues against a kneejerk horizontalism that Verso authors are consistently worried about, (see Jameson’s Reading Capital for a similar turn). One can only imagine this fear as the result of being shouted down in the past by an unswayed group. Harvey is most interested in Murray Bookchin’s work on libertarian municipalism and confederal assemblies, if only because they represent one of the instances of engaged thought on the issue. Harvey certainly doesn’t have a comparable set of solutions, but I’m amenable to his argument that pure horizontal organizations are impossible at certain scales. If nothing else, Rebel Cities is a more engaging work than much of what Marxist theory has produced in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (moreso, to my mind, than Harvey’s The enigma of capital, seemed more of a glum victory tour than anything else), and helps connect Harvey’s major and most well known works on economics and geography to contemporary work by Hardt and Negri, as well as explaining his relationship to more explicitly anarchist thought.

Also, unlike Harvey’s work in 1980s and 90s, it’s a fairly breezy read.

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