Thoughts on transgression in the 21st century

This posting should probably be called Thoughts on “Transgression” — since it is difficult to think of transgression today without using air quotes or scare quotes of ironic distancing or whatever. Transgression was an important move in 19th and 20th century Euro-American aesthetics; from the Paris bohemians shocking to bourgeoise, through surrealism in Europe and the Beats in the USA, on to much of the LGBTQ art of the late 20th century. But what remains of this today?

Transgression, like so many other things, has largely been commodified and corporatized in the 21st century. What used to seem subversive is now no longer so. There is no sexual kink so extreme that you cannot find an internet community devoted to it. Of course, transgression always had different political valencies. If anarchism, extreme sex, and psychedelic drugs were transgressive, so were the eruptions of violence and destruction that the Italian Futurists loved, and that culminated in fascism. There’s always been a large degree of uneven development (to borrow and detourn a Marxist term) involved. For instance, I am second to no one in my admiration of Georges Bataille’s deeply transgressive critique of bourgeois capitalism (including of how it prepared the ground for, and then accomodated, fascism). My first book was half about Bataille. But what can be more stupid, boring, and old-fashioned to read today than Bataille’s pornographic fiction, with its extreme (and all too typical of male intellectuals of Bataille’s generation) gynophobia? — as in his ludicrous description of the female genitalia as “hairy and pink, just as full of life as some loathsome squid… that running, teeming wound.”

Even more seriously, perhaps, transgression today is largely a phenomenon of the ultra-right. Bari Weiss urges us to embrace the daring of the “intellectual dark web,” where people express such “dangerous” and “taboo” ideas as white supremacy, normative heterosexuality, male superiority, and the attribution of all differences among human beings in social power and wealth to the inexorable effects of genetics. This is what happens when large corporations, in order to maintain their sales, pay hypocritical lip service to “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” Yesterday’s mainstream ideology, which still has widespread support throughout society despite polite surface disavowals, is now packaged as a rebellious and transgressive refusal to conform. This is the basis of websites like 8Chan, and of the appeal of Donald Trump, whose supporters love him precisely because he violates the norms of social and political propriety.

I am not really bothered by the loss of transgression as a gesture, or as a self-aggrandizing form of display. I am happy to get beyond that, to stop being impressed by that sort of grandiosity. What I do wonder about, however, is the existence of ideas that really are disturbing — not just ‘disturbing’ to liberal opinion because we don’t say such things (even when we really believe them) in polite white society. Neither the race-baiting of the alt-right, nor even something like Nietzsche’s whole-hearted advocacy of enslaving the large majority of human beings, is all that shocking today: we have a whole history in which such positions were hegemonic (and, beneath hypocritical disguises, they still actually are, more or less).

What I am thinking of, instead, is some propositions that are raised, often indirectly, in science fiction novels and stories. Take, for instance, the idea that perhaps it would be better if human beings were to go extinct, leaving the planet to other (and hopefully less rapacious) organisms. This idea is raised at least as far back as 1969, in the short story “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and it has been taken up by many science fiction and environmental fiction writers since. Such a contemplation of complete human extinction is genuinely disturbing, in a way that neither Georges Bataille’s sexual fantasies, nor the alt-right’s sadistic imaginings of domination, could ever be.

But perhaps the very totalization of imagining human doom makes things a bit too simple. There are other suggestions I have found in recent speculative fiction that are not quite as extreme, but perhaps even more unsettling. In my forthcoming book Extreme Fabulations, I write about several science fiction texts that pose the question of human extinction in a somewhat different way. WHat these texts propose is that, from an ethical and political standpoint, complete human extermination might well be less bad that a catastrophe that allows the wealthy to survive the doom they have inflicted upon everyone else. None of the texts I have in mind quite state this, but they do raise it as a question. The best known of these is the two most recent novels by William Gibson: The Peripheral (2014) and Agency (2020). Both of these novels envision a 22nd century in which something like 80% of all human beings have killed off as a result of multiple ecological catastrophes; but the affluent have survived the damage, along with enough people to be their servants, and enough technology to make their lives pleasant. Though Gibson does not raise the point directly, he raises in the reader’s mind (or at least in my mind) a question of justice. I find it intolerable that a group or class of people who have essentially committed genocide should get to enjoy the fruits of what they have done. This is not far from a real-world situation: it is obvious that, today, the international billionaire class is aware that we are headed to ecological ruin, but that they are unwilling to spend even a small part of their wealth, let alone undergo discomfort, in order to alleviate it. They have decided, instead, to bunker down and outlive it (or, in the case of Elon Musk, escape it by moving to Mars): they anticipate that eventually they, or their descendants, will be able to emerge from hiding, and resume ownership of a world from which most other human beings, together with innumerable other species, will have been eliminated. This may well be a ridiculous fantasy; perhaps there will not be enough left for them ever to resume their privileged lives. But am I wrong to feel an ethical revulsion at this prospect? Is it not more ethical to have total human extinction, than to allow the perpetrators of mass death to survive and get away with it?

Here is another science fictional scenario, that I will discuss more briefly. Several sf texts that I have read recently — Carl Neville’s novel Eminent Domain, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short story “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” — both suggest that the continuing existence of the United States of America makes the achievement of any degree of freedom and prosperity, or any sort of humane socialism, in the rest of the world impossible. Sriduangkaew’s story pretty much explicitly advocates the destruction of the USA and the violent extermination of its people. While Neville’s novel neither envisages nor advocates any such thing, it nonetheless makes it clear that the continuing existence of the USA is an absolute stumbling block to any hopes for liberty, equality, and general well-being anywhere else in the world. This seems to me to be the inverse of the situation I described in the previous paragraph. As a comfortable, affluent, and generally privileged citizen of the USA, I don’t really want anything to happen that will harm my own way of life, of those of my children, friends, and relatives. Nonetheless, I find the ethico-political claim made by these works of fiction to be compelling and largely true: that the maintenance of American power across the world, and of affluence for a smaller group of Americans among whom I must include myself, is contingent upon the immiseration of a large majority of human beings, and only the complete elimination of the American imperium and the American threat can possibly alleviate this situation.

So these are some of the uncomfortable thoughts that are too extreme even to call “transgressive,” that will never be entertained by the proponents of the Dark Web, whose right to be expressed will never be a cause celebre for the opponents of so-called “cancel culture,” but whose logic I find it hard to counter, much to my own distress.

NFTs

Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.

My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).

Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.

Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).

As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.

I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.

On Lisa Adkins, The Time of Money

Lisa Adkins’ new book, The Time of Money, is brilliant and, I think, extremely important. But I also find it quite perplexing in terms of its overall stance and motivation.

The basic argument of the book is that speculative financial operations are central to social life and experience today. Capitalism has moved from an extractive regime (generating surplus from exploiting labor) to a speculative regime (generating surplus from speculative financial transactions). In this way, finance is in no sense superstructural or extrinsic to the “real economy”; rather, it directly and entirely makes over the entire realm of the social. And in particular, financial speculation makes over our concept and experience of time. Under industrial capitalism, we experience time as a uniform and extrinsic measure: labor power is a commodity measured in units of time, and commodities in general are subject to universal equivalence through the socially necessary time of their production. But we are now, instead, subject to speculative time:

Time is not a thing that simply passes or that contains and orders events, nor is it something that moves in one direction or another, proceeding, for example, chronologically, progressively, or sequentially, with the past standing behind the present and the future unfolding from the now. Speculative time is a time in which pasts, presents, and futures stand not in a predetermined or pre-set relation to each other but are in a continuous state of movement, transformation, and unfolding. It is this form of time that belongs to the time of securitized debt. Thus, in the time of securitized debt, futures may remediate not only the present but also the past; the present and its relation to the past and the future may be reset in one action (via, e.g., index rolling); pasts and presents can be forwarded and futures and presents backwarded. It is, moreover, along the flows of these nonchronological pasts, presents, and futures, including their reordering and resetting and even their suspension, that channels for profit are yielded. In short, in the time of securitized debt, the time of profit lies in the nonchronological and indeterminate movements of speculative time.

This new sort of time is not only the time of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; for it completely penetrates and transforms everyday experience as well. Individuals and households are now subjected to speculative time. It is no longer the case that wages compensate labor, and provide the basis for social reproduction (the old, Keyensian-Fordist model, under which the man’s labor provided for the commodity needs of the household, like food and shelter, while women worked inside the home in uncompensated domestic labor). Instead, wages are no longer sufficient to meet household needs, even if women as well as men enter full time into the workforce. Similarly, so-called “welfare reform” means that the state no longer provides necessities for the unemployed, but instead forces even people without jobs to engage in incessant, uncompensated labor.

For both the employed and the unemployed, and for both men and women, wages today do not provide enough to get by (enough for social reproduction), as they used to do in the Fordist era; instead, we are all required to use our wages for speculative investment, by accumulating debt as well as by enlisting what money we supposedly have in speculative schemes from which banks, realtors, etc. can draw more and more surplus. We are now continually indebted for life; financial institutions lend us more than we will ever be able to pay back, because they make their money not so much on the ultimate repayment of their loans as on the packaging and sale of these obligations in the form of derivatives, credit default swaps, etc. etc. I will never get my Visa debt, or my mortgage, down to zero; for one thing, I do not earn enough to pay down these debts in my lifetime, and for another thing, I am continually offered the prospect of rolling over and renegotiating these debts, which serves to perpetuate them ad infinitum. None of the financial institutions to which I owe these debts is interested in my paying them off and becoming debt-free; they would rather that I continue to pay them off without ever fulfilling my “obligation.” They make more money by buying and selling such accumulated debts, and their associated income streams of continual payments, than they ever would by getting me to pay back the principal.

In this way, the everyday experience of individuals and households, and the everyday money we use to buy basic goods and services, are entirely subsumed by, and subjected to, the speculative time of finance. This means that in the current regime of debt time is not emptied out, or deprived of a future, in the way that Lazzarato and other critics have claimed; rather, our experience of temporality is more intense and convoluted than ever before. We are compelled to live according to the speculative time of finance; we cannot simply remember the past and anticipate or project into the future, but must micro-organize every aspect of our lives, and of our temporal experience, in accordance with the never-completed and continually-reshaped necessities of debt servicing:

Such [repayment] schedules—operating for the waged, the employed, the unwaged, the jobless, the underemployed, and the unemployed—have not only rewritten the relationship between household and personal debt and income but tie populations across whole lifetimes to the movements of speculative time, a time in which the relationships between the past, present, and future are not fixed but open to constant adjustment. Contemporary debt, then, does not destroy time by tying populations to futures that can never be their own but opens out a universe in which they are tied to the indeterminate movements of speculative time. This is a time through and in which the productivity of populations is maximized via the flows and movements of money.

I find Adkins’ account compelling. She makes a powerful argument for the claim that speculative finance entirely and massively “rewrites the social.” This is clearly in tension with Marxist claims that are based in the primacy of roduction, and that understand financial instruments as “ficticious capital.” But in a broader sense, I find Adkins’ account still congruent with the larger Marxist understanding that social processes are based, “in the last instance,” upon the extraction and expropriation of a surplus generated in the course of human life activity (or what Marx called “species being” in his early writings, and specified in terms of productive activity in his later writings). I think that the expropriation and accumulation of a surplus is the most crucial point – which is why, for instance, I have never been troubled, as many orthodox Marxists have been, with something like Sraffa’s understanding of surplus extraction and accumulation. It is the extraction (or theft from the public) of the surplus that is crucial, whether this is understood in terms of labor commodified as labor power (Marx), of physical production (Sraffa), or of financial speculation (in Adkins’ model). And in the contrary case, it is this failure to recognize the expropriation of a surplus, in any of these modes, that characterizes bourgeois economics. [Right-wing populism sometimes denounces “parasites,” who can be bankers (presumptively Jewish), as well as welfare recipients (presumptively Black) and violent criminals (presumtively Latino), but it never offers a social and systematic account of surplus expropriation].

So from this point of view, I see Adkins’ understanding as a useful one, and indeed as a way of showing that financial activities are fully material processes, as against “the ongoing identification of money and finance as immaterial or superstructural phenomena,” as other Left theorists, such as Mauricio Lazzarato, have tended to claim:

contra Lazzarato, the emergence of such everyday forms of money as a nonrepresentational surface that must be put in motion and practices that ensure that the productive capacities of populations are maximized toward such speculative activities is neither immaterial nor does it operate outside of the coordinates of the social world.

I think Adkins is right that financial speculation is a fully material process, not a parasitic superstructure to the economy. Just as I find Sraffa as a useful supplement to Marx with his emphasis on physical production, I see Adkins as useful for her emphasis on speculative movement. This is despite the fact that, just as my worry with Sraffa is that his theory seems to offer no place for contemporary finance (circulation as itself a productive activity), so my symmetrically opposite worry with Adkins is that, even if we accept her contention about the centrality of financial speculation, she seems to write as if physical production didn’t exist at all any longer. When wages no longer allow for social reproduction of the individual or household, condemning people therefore to enter into endless speculative spirals of debt, isn’t this because people still need to obtain physical stuff in order to survive, or in order to maintain what Marx saw as the socially-defined level of subsistence (which is not the same as minimal physical subsistence, since it also includes, in the US for instance, such things as mobile phones)?

This limitation of Adkins’ theory is not in itself fatal — I accept that what she is writing about is indeed crucial, even if it is not total — but it leads me to the perplexity I mentioned at the start. Adkins’ tone is polemical, even vitriolically so, when she denounces other accounts of neoliberal economy and of financial speculation. She continually attacks “normative assumptions” such as the way that “the expansion of finance has been taken to be destructive of the future, to interfere with the proper flow of time, and to threaten to return us to previous, unenlightened eras.” While I understand Adkins’ desire to get away from “normative” ideas about temporality, I don’t see why she needs to make so extreme an opposition. I don’t think want to try to subsume these opposed images of time in some sort of Hegelian sublation, but I also don’t think they exclude one another as absolutely as Adkins says (I prefer to see it in terms of a Kantian antinomy, in which the opposed terms are mutually implicated, in a way that refuses any possibility of Hegelian sublation). She is quite positive in denouncing these other visions of futurity, but frustratingly vague in explaining the contrasting details of the speculative time of finance. Sometimes Adkins refers to the schedules of speculative time as “calendrics”; this puts me in mind of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire space opera trilogy, in which calendrics are the basic tools of imperial domination. As is so often the case with science fiction, Lee’s trilogy is much more detailed in its consideration of oppressive calendrics and how they might operate, than Adkins’ sociological text dares to be.

Adkins shows how time is produced in the current neoliberal regime of financial speculation, so that we are bound to a very powerful, if indeterminate and continually shifting and changing, sort of futurity. This is entirely in line with Foucault’s (and Deleuze and Guattari’s) idea that power is generative rather than repressive. But such an ordering — an enslavement, really, to contingency, possibility, and irreducible risk — is not really opposed to the idea of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher), according to which we cannot imagine a future that is in rupture from the ongoing neoliberal present. Rather, the two are conjoined. In what Deleuze calls the society of control (rightly cited by Adkins), we are continually indebted (rather than serially imprisoned in a series of institutions as was the case in the disciplinary society), but this perpetual indebtedness, while it binds us to a very particular set of obligations that entirely determine our future, can also be said to be denying us any difference in the future. We cannot imagine anything different from financial capitalism, because we cannot imagine anything different than a regime of continually metamorphosing futures which, for all their uncertainty, generate a surplus that financial institutions expropriate from us, while leaving us exposed to risks for which there is no social remedy (since the structures of the welfare state have been systematicaly dismantled). Our binding to complex nonlinear regimes of futurity is precisely what makes other senses of futurity impossible.

My puzzlement grows even further when I reflect how Adkins suggests that the speculative time of finance is closely akin to the speculative accounts of time that we find in contemporary feminist and new materialist philosophy (she specifically mentions Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, and Iris van der Tuin, among others). But though she mentions this, she doesn’t follow up on the observation. The speculative temporalities advanced by these thinkers are intended to offer us liberatory alternatives to the oppressions of normative, linear clock time. Should we think instead that they are just accurate descriptions of our current mode of oppression? I have sometimes made this move with regard to Deleuze and Guattari; for instance, I have suggested that their notions of the rhizomatic, of smooth space, of micropolitics, etc., are not forms of liberation, but precisely the tools that allow us to apprehend how neoliberal power and exploitation operate. Nothing is more rhizomatic than contemporary finance capital, and nothing is more exploitative. Should we say the same for feminist and new materialist temporal speculation? Is there any alternative temporality at all, if it turns out that these supposedly liberatory accounts are really just mechanisms of finance capital? That is what Adkins implies. But she never quite comes out and says this. And of course, convinced as I am by her arguments, I nonetheless do not want to accept this grim conclusion. And we should also consider — although Adkins does not — the alternative, speculative temporalities proposed by Afrofuturists from Sun Ra to Rasheedah Philips, which refer both to the past and the future, against an oppressive present and against enslavement to linearity. Are these too merely expressions of the logic of financial speculation? Can speculative fiction be disentangled from speculative finance? This is the biggest question that Adkins leaves me with, and to which she does not offer any sort of answer.

Atopias, by Frederic Neyrat

Frédéric Neyrat is a French philosopher who has published extensively in French; but the first English translation of one of his books has only just appeared. ATOPIAS:MANIFESTO FOR A RADICAL EXISTENTIALISM is an important book, and a good short introduction to Neyrat’s ideas. I had the pleasure of being asked to write an Introduction to ATOPIAS, and I am republishing it here — in order to help indicate what is important and original about the book.


Frédéric Neyrat’s Atopias is an important book. The contribution it makes to critical thought today is encapsulated in its subtitle: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism. A manifesto is a short declaration of principles and a program, rather than a fully extended analysis. Neyrat characterizes the present work as “a worried intervention in the field of theory,” rather than a declaration of eternal truths.

There have been other philosophical manifestos published over the past several decades; most notably, two “Manifestos for Philosophy” by Alain Badiou. Within the context of contemporary French thought, Frédéric Neyrat’s position and perspective are strikingly different from those of Badiou; but both thinkers are motivated by the conviction that a renewal of philosophical thought is especially urgent today, at a time when the sciences seem to present themselves as the only reputable sources of knowledge, and when the economic and ideological constraints of our society cast doubt upon philosophical reflection, as upon anything that is not of immediate profit and utility.

Atopias offers us a deep analysis and critique of our current political and intellectual situation. It seeks to develop a new way of thinking that will be adequate to the predicament in which we find ourselves today. We live in an era of advanced computing and communications technologies, which are revolutionizing every aspect of our daily lives. We face the mode of governance and control that has come to be known as neoliberalism: a condition in which market competition is promoted as the sole possible solution to all difficulties, and in which corporations seem to have “human rights” while human beings themselves do not. In addition, we face an ecological crisis. Global warming is already changing the very shape of life on our planet; in the years to come, we are likely to witness the flooding of coastal regions, the continuing extinction of large numbers of living species, and the destruction of millions of people’s livelihoods and modes of survival.

Frédéric Neyrat does not address any of these conditions directly in the present work. But although Atopias is the first of his works to be translated into English, he has published quite prolifically in French. All these issues are developed at greater length in his other books. He has written at length about our obligations to the Earth and to other species, as well as about the suffocating conditions produced by our drive to dominate the planet, our restless consumerism, and our “auto-immune” drive to ignore our own vulnerabilities, and our willful blindness to our nihilistic tendencies. In Atopias, he seeks to establish a philosophical basis — or perhaps I should rather say, a non-basis — that might allow us to address these issues, and to be equal to the challenges we face.

Neyrat is clearly indebted to his philosophical forebears, including Badiou and, above all, Gilles Deleuze. Nonetheless, he proposes a new sort of philosophical project, one that is strikingly different from those of his predecessors. Deleuze, following Nietzsche, belongs to the great tradition of post-Enlightenment demystification. He mounts an attack upon the idea of transcendence and the belief in absolutes. The major effort of Western philosophy, from Plato onwards, has arguably been to judge human life from a standpoint superior to life, to abolish all vestiges of chance and contingency, and to establish norms for correct behavior. In all of these cases, Deleuze says — following Nietzsche — that the forces of life are deformed and repressed. Every entity is subjected to arbitrary, external constraints, and “separated from what it can do” (to use a famous phrase of Deleuze’s that Neyrat directly quotes). Against all this, Deleuze proposes a philosophy of radical immanence, one in which there is no Beyond. Things and processes of this world must be valued (or not) for their own sakes, rather than judged in accordance with externally imposed criteria.

But perhaps the struggle against transcendence has been all too successful. Today, when I ask my students to read Nietzsche, they are neither scandalized nor exalted. Instead, they find him banal. They take it for granted that everyone has their own opinion, and that no particular opinion is better than any other. And they cannot see that anything more is at stake. Of course this is a poor misreading of Nietzsche, but that is beside the point. Relativism is no longer shocking, subversive, or transgressive, as its was in earlier centuries. Rather it is something that we take for granted, with a blasé shrug.

Or, as Neyrat puts it, in more rigorous language than mine: “immanence, as a category necessary for contesting the spiritualties that negate life,” has instead “come to mean the grim machine that destroys differences, a mill for grinding out a sort of ontological flour, an ontology spread flat.” Nietzsche and Deleuze must be spinning in their graves at this degradation of their ideas. In effect, Neyrat says, Nietzsche’s and Deleuze’s battles against transcendence have been won. But the result is a situation that both of those thinkers would have detested: one in which radical change has become impossible, and in which thought has been thoroughly instrumentalized, made nothing more than a tool for the efficient fulfillment of pre-given utilitarian goals. We live in a world “where every trajectory seems geo-localizable, where every knowledge must be situated and efficient, every obscurity cleared up, every real singularity suspect.”

Neyrat calls this condition “saturated immanence.” Everything is caught up in the flows of capitalist monetary equivalence; there is no outside any longer, no separation between one thing and another; there is no sense of otherness whatsoever. Everything is in flux, as we are told over and over again. And yet, these are fluxes in which nothing ever really changes. When flux is the sole characteristic of everything and anything, when everything is flexible and everything is interchangeable, then nothing is really different from anything else, nothing ever makes a difference. Other thinkers have characterized globalized and financialized capitalism in this way; Neyrat sees it as a dilemma for critical thought as well.

Saturated immanence is the condition against which Neyrat seeks to mobilize philosophy. In a world where anything can be anyplace, and anything can switch places with anything else, philosophy must insist on its power to be, not everyplace, but noplace. It must never fit in, but always disturb its context. Neyrat uses the word atopia for this condition, in order to avoid the undesirable connotations — perfection and changelessness — of the etymologically similar utopia. In Neyrat’s account, philosophy works by avoiding any sort of fixity or rootedness, and by maintaining a relation with the very Outside (dehors) that our dominant social, economic, and intellectual conditions seek to deny or suppress. An atopic philosophy does not reinstate the old forms of capital-T Transcendence, the claims to an Absolute, that thinkers like Nietzsche and Deleuze so successfully attacked; but nonetheless, by maintaining a link with otherness, with outsideness, and with displacement, it offers us a (small-t) transcendence as an alternative to saturated immanence. It seeks to dig holes, and open up gaps, in what is otherwise a suffocating (and even totalitarian) world of hyper-presence.

For Neyrat, philosophy does not itself create the Outside. What it does is to give us a route of access to this Outside. It opens the doors that our current social system has closed. “Thought does not define the outside,” Neyrat says, “but prolongs it, draws it out.” Outsideness is not a transcendent condition; indeed, it is “nothing more than the simple fact of existence.” To exist is to stand out; the “ex-” etymologically indicates emergence, outsideness, or coming-forth. Any living thing, or anything that exists, is singular in some way: it differs from everything else, or it deviates from all that came before. This means that the internal being of any existing entity is also its external relation with all the things that it is not. Philosophy is a way of exploring “the divergence or dis-joining attested to by all existence.”

In Atopias, Neyrat develops these ideas carefully and generously. In the first chapter, he proposes them in relation both to the history of philosophy, and to the contemporary situation of absolute flux or saturated immanence. In the second chapter, he explores the existential dimension of “being-outside” and of radical contingency and radical finitude. Finally, in the third chapter, he places his argument in relation to the meta-question of what sort of role philosophy — and especially the much-denounced branch of philosophy known as metaphysics — can have today. Atopias is a short book, but a rich one, dense with ideas and suggestions. There is much exuberant invention here, in line with Deleuze and Guattari’s maxim that philosophy should be the “creation of concepts.” But above all, Atopias is a work of ethics, exhorting us to recognize and find room for the many forms of existence with whom we share our planet.

Ray Brassier on Nick Land

This is a brief (and quickly written) commentary on an old talk by Ray Brassier, about Nick Land, dating from 2010. The questions around speculative realism, accelerationism, and Land’s current politics are all still with us today. Brassier describes Land’s philosophical project, its impetus, its originality, and why it ends in an impasse that Land can only deal with by becoming a neo-reactionary.

According to Brassier (and I think this is entirely accurate), Land’s starting point is the “transcendental materialism” of Deleuze and Guattari. Land “proposes to radicalise critique… by collapsing the hierarchy of the transcendental and the empirical… the first thing that needs to be destratified is the empirical/transcendental difference.” Kant’s critique of metaphysics is conducted precisely by means of distinguishing the transcendental from the empirical (and also the transcendental from the transcendent). Deleuze and, a fortiriori, Land turn this critique back upon its presuppositions, in order to affirm a radical immanence, in which “matter itself is synthetic and productive. Matter is primary process, and everything that unfolds at the level of conceptual representation is merely secondary and derivative.” Deleuze already pursues this via Bergson’s critique of representation and privileging of intuition. Land goes further, getting rid of intuition, and of anything else that is subjective, phenomenological, or affective. Land values intensity in itself, apart from any of these frameworks; the “subject” cannot experience intensity, because intensity destabilises and eliminates it. Brassier applauds this move, in contrast to the “flaccid inanity of contemporary Bergsonian vitalism,” which Brassier clearly detests.

However, this move also gets Land into an impossible impasse; this is because

vitalism is hence all about having intense experiences. But Landianism can’t avail itself of this register of intensification, because he’s not interested in phenomenological subjectivity and he’s not interested in experiences insofar as they are experiences of a subject in the Deleuzoguattarian register: an organism, with a face and a personal identity, etc. These are all the things that are supposed to require destratification.

In other words, the project fails precisely because intensification is “not translatable into any register of affective experience or affective intensity” — in exactly the same way that it is not translatable into any register of cognition or conceptualization. Those of us working in affect theory have been claiming for quite some time that the realm of affect is presubjective, and that it includes layers of efficacy and determination that are irreducible to cognition or to concepts. (My own version of this works this out by ignoring Kant’s transcendental argument in the First Critique, in favor of his aesthetics in the Third Critique). Brassier tells us that we are operating with a stacked deck, as it were; all our arguments about the failure of cognition or of concepts can be turned around to equally demonstrate the failure of “affective experience or affective intensity.” From Brassier’s point of view, we are all a bit “muddle-headed” (as Russell accused Whitehead of being). In Brassier’s account, the superiority of Land is that he at least faces the deep consequences of an ethics of intensity, as Deleuze and affect theorists do not.

But the other side of this is that, according to Brassier, Land has no other basis for action besides the one that he has so rigorously destroyed. Land wants to maintain “that you can just keep on intensifying and intensifying,” without end. This is impressive in that it substitutes a death drive, Thanatos, for the vitalist  (Bergsonian) life drive that Brassier finds so lax and vapid. But ultimately Land’s process of radicalization subverts itself: “if your schizoanalytical practice is fuelled by the need to always intensify and deterritorialize, there comes a point at which there is no agency left: you yourself have been dissolved back into the process.” Inevitably “you end up engendering performative contradictions, not just theoretical ones. Contradictions at the level of concepts manifest themselves as an incapacity at the level of practice.” Or, in other words, Land’s philosophy  “leads to a kind of practical impotence.”

From this, the route to Land’s current politics is easy to see. For Land, “politics must be displaced, it must be deputized, and all you can do is endorse or affirm impersonal processes which at least harbour the promise of generating or ushering in the next phase of deterritorialization.” You can only be fatalistic, welcoming the processes that destroy us as agents or subjects. But in practice, your disavowal of any willed practice “means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc…. If you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics.” Land ends up becoming “he pawn of another kind of impersonal force… a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism.” Celebrating capitalist deterritorialization for its own sake leads to neo-reaction, or neo-feudalism, or whatever else we want to call the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. Trump may be losing the current election, but (as Roddey Reid suggests), a Trump 2.0 is likely to emerge in the near future, one much slicker than Trump, and even more insidious. 

Brassier’s own answer to this dilemma consists in his turn toward Sellars and allied philosophers; it’s a sort of Kant 2.0 that rehabilitates epistemology, rationality, and scientism from Deleuzian and Landian critiques. But I am not going to go into my own critique of Brassier’s position in any direct way here; rather, I want to suggest the possibility of a third position, distinct from either Brassier or Land, but nonetheless subsisting within the (anti-vitalist) terrain that Brassier depicts.

In short: Brassier warns us that “once thinking itself becomes subordinated to the imperative to intensify and destratify,” — and thereby rejects representation and epistemological issues– then “it’s clear that there must be a limitrophic point of absolute deterritorialization towards which the process of affirmation or acceleration tends.” But why should thought be governed by “the imperative to intensify and destratify,” any more than by the more traditional philosophic imperative of self-reflexive epistemological and representational critique? I am inclined to think that these are two sides of the same coin. Why should we do either? 

My own response here is an aesthetic one. I am inclined to think (as I already argue in my book Discognition) that — far from being a discrediting flaw — performative contradiction is actually a sign that something is going right. Or — to put it a bit less categorically — arguments that end in performative contradiction are of course not necessarily right; but any line of approach that is right must necessarily lead to some sort of performative contradiction. This is because of the necessary inadequacy of cognitive categories to grasp and determine the Real. It’s a lesson we ultimately get from Kant, in spite of himself, and that becomes more overt in post-Kantians like Derrida (I know he usually isn’t regarded this way, but he should be), and in today’s speculative realism. This is where we get the philosophical destratification of the transcendental-empirical binary. All of our transcendental a prioris (and we cannot ever dispense with them) turn out to be empirical and contingent in the last analysis. The very act of making a categorical assertion involves me in a performative contradiction; yet we cannot do without such categorical assertions. You can well say, from the point of view of epistemology, that this situation leads to a kind of practical impotence,” or to an endless process of deconstruction. But performative contradiction is an aesthetic condition, not an epistemological one. Art exists because the most important things in life are epistemologically intractable. Epistemology (the First Critique) and ethics (the Second Critique) are incomplete, and indeed they can only avoid collapse, through the intervention of aesthetics (the Third Critique).

I think that (as I argued in a different way in my little book on accelerationism) any such neo-aestheticism also implies a different theory of desire from the one we take for granted. Affirmationist and vitalist theory, and the radical negation of these that we find in its most “virulent” form in Land, and in a much more sophisticated form in Brassier, are united in that they both assume the infinitude of desire, and hence the inevitable discontinuity between desire (or desiring production) and its actual effects or consequences. Such is also the presupposition of the 19th and 20th century sublime, of psychoanalytic theories of desire, and of the simple consumerism which is our most elaborated form of desire today. Against this widely-shared idea of desire’s infinitude, what I am calling neo-aestheticism understands desire as being finite, multiple, and combinatorial. Such an approach to desire is expressed most fully perhaps, in Charles Fourier’s utopian visions (which are simultaneously a parody of bourgeois-capitalist forms of subjectivity, and their antidote), as well as in the notions of self-fashioning that we see, perhaps, in Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. Aesthetic self-fashioning does not start in any thing subjective or agential; instead, it ends in them (and of course it only ends in this way provisionally, because as finite and combinatorial it always runs out at some point, and hence needs to be practised again. This incompletion is what is often misunderstood as the infinitude of desire; but it involves repeated small satisfactions, rather than some general existential dissatisfaction).

Affect/Emotion

This is a general statement, nothing really new. I was writing it in another context, realized I didn’t need it, decided to post it here.

Affect theorists tend to distinguish between affect and emotion. I will start with the latter, because it is easier to explain. Emotions are personal experiences or states, like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise (these are the six basic emotions catalogued by the psychologist Paul Ekman, though we may well dispute his claims that this list is either exhaustive, or invariant across cultures). There are also more complex emotions, like humiliation, contempt, relief, jealousy, exhaustion, and so on; it is unclear whether these can be broken down into combinations of the more basic ones, or whether more specific cultural contexts need to be involved. It also isn’t easy to delineate the boundary between emotions and moods (which might include such conditions as melancholy, despair, and contentment). Presumably emotions are acute and momentary, while moods are longer-lasting and more stable, providing a general background to our more immediate experiences. But in spite of all these difficulties, we are generally able to recognize emotions in ourselves and others. Indeed, emotions are always attached to subjects or selves. They are conditions that come over us, or in which we find ourselves. They are states of mind that we experience directly. They tend to color and inflect — or even set the conditions for — nearly all of our other perceptions and actions.

Cognitivists and evolutionary psychiatrists understand emotions largely in functional terms. Emotions, they tell us, are shortcuts which aid us in making judgments necessary to our survival. If something tastes disgusting, I immediately spit it out; I might well die if I only rejected a given piece of food after having rationally determined that it was poisonous. But it seems to me that this sort of explanation is inadequate; it fails to account for the ways that emotions seem to take on a life of their own. They creep up upon us, overcome us, and sometimes overwhelm us. They can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Indeed, emotions can be (and often are) experienced — felt, enjoyed, or suffered — for their own sake, without serving any particular function, and entirely apart from anything that they might lead us to believe or do. Such vicarious experience is the basis of all aesthetics. Reading a novel, hearing a piece of music, or watching a movie is an emotional experience first of all. Cognition and judgment only come about later, if at all.

This situation is what leads affect theorists — following in the wake of such thinkers as Spinoza, William James, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Massumi — to differentiate between emotion and affect. If emotions are personal experiences, then affects are the forces (perhaps the flows of energy) that precede, produce, and inform such experiences. Affect is pre-personal and pre-subjective; it is social, or even ontological, before it is strictly individual. Affect isn’t what I feel, so much as it is what forces me to feel. Affect in this sense is not necessarily conscious; but conscious experience may well issue from it. Psychoanalysis tells us of drives that impel thought but cannot themselves be captured in thought; cognitive psychology tells us of computational processes that provide the basis for conscious awareness, but that cannot themselves be grasped within such awareness.

Affect theory accepts both of these formulations, but pushes them even further. It argues that drives and cognitive processes are themselves only instances, or specialized and limited aspects, of more general movements of affect. Affect is best understood — in Spinoza’s formulation — as any manner in which (using the word as a verb instead of a noun) entities in the world affect and are affected by one another. I see things in the light of the Sun’s visible spectrum, and I feel with pleasure the warmth of the Sun’s infrared rays on my skin. But I am also affected by the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; even though I cannot sense them directly, they may well impinge upon me in the long run, in the form of sunburn, or even of skin cancer. And as William James argued, I don’t feel a clenching in my stomach because I am afraid, so much as this clenching is already in itself my experience of fear. In this way, I already feel afraid, before I become aware of what it is that has frightened me. In this way, our perceptions and our emotions are drenched in affect, and driven by affect, even though affect per se is irreducible to perception or emotion.

This means that affect is at once both physical and mental; or better, affect precedes (and thereby escapes) the very distinction between the physical and the mental. Affect is also all at once both actual and vicarious. It is actual, because it happens within me as an alteration of my physical and psychological state. But it is also vicarious, because — as a process of alteration — it is independent of the things or forces that trigger it. I actually do feel fear, even when I am mistaken (that rustling in the grass was not actually caused by the movement of a poisonous snake), and indeed even in what I know to be fictional circumstances (as when I respond to the slasher in a horror movie). This is why affect is so central to our experience of audiovisual media artifacts (and indeed, of media and arts in general).

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

More copyright idiocy

So here’s yet another case of over-the-top copyright restrictions involving something I wrote. In December 2014, the Whitehead Research Project held an excellent conference on Whitehead’s short book Symbolism. I was one of the speakers at the conference; I posted an uncorrected version of my talk, “Whitehead on Causality and Perception,” as a blog entry. As has happened with previous conferences sponsored by the WRP, the essays are supposed to be collected in a volume. As far as I knew, the volume was proceeding apace. But today I received the following from the editors in  my email:

As we are only allowed 500 words worth of quotes from any single work within the volume, ALL short Symbolism quotes within your chapter must be paraphrased or removed entirely. This is an unfortunate and difficult requirement, but the alternative is that you pay Simon & Schuster the fee for quotations associated with your chapter, which would also delay the publication of the entire volume up to a year.

This strikes me as completely unwarranted. And actually, I am not quite sure even how to interpret it. Does it mean that no more than 500 words from Symbolism may be quoted in each individual article? Or that no more than 500 words from Symbolism (or any other single text of Whitehead’s) may be quoted in the entire volume of essays?

I haven’t actually counted the number of words I quote from Symbolism in my (approx) 6000-word essay. But my frequent short citations of the volume are entirely to be expected in a scholarly essay that engages in the close reading of a difficult philosophical text. Without the citations from Whitehead’s book, my own essay makes no sense. Whitehead’s Symbolism is itself (approx) 17,000-words long; a short book, in other words, but still I have only cited a small portion of it in my own essay. My citations are clearly protected under fair use. (As far as I am aware, it is only in the case of poetry and song lyrics that such fair use protection is not granted. To extend the poetry rule for philosophical treatises would be a calamity for all intellectual discussion).

In any case, I am not willing either to remove the quotations and substitute paraphrase, or to pay Simon and Schuster whatever extortionate amount they demand for me to exercise my rights under the doctrine of fair use. So my only choice is to withdraw the essay from the volume, unless the current restriction is removed. In any case, I do not blame the editors at WRP for this situation; they have assured me that they are doing their best to get Simon and Schuster to reconsider. But I am angry about the general climate with regards to copyright, in which large publishers (like S&S) can in effect act like bullies, and to impose egregious restrictions like this which contravene the very notion of fair use, simply because they know that nobody else can afford the legal fees that it would cost to contest these restrictions in court.

I should say that I am very proud of this essay; I think it is one of the best and most significant articles that I have ever written. Of course, maybe I am just congratulating myself too much; this is something for every reader to decide. But readers’ judgments can only be made if the article itself is available to read; you can access and download it here.

Past & Future

Bergson tells us, as Deleuze puts it in his Cinema books, that “the hidden ground of time” is “its differentiation into two flows, that of the presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved.” Or, as Paolo Virno similarly puts it, in his recently translated book Deja Vu and the End of History, memory “captures the same current moment as perception does, but in an essentially different manner. The fleeting present is always grasped in two distinct and concomitant aspects (which are concomitant precisely because they are distinct),” the passing of the present and the memory of the past. What this means, for Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno alike, is that ontological memory, or the preserved past, is identical with the virtual (as opposed to the actual of the fleeting present). Virno goes on to explain how Bergson’s distinction between intuition and pragmatic intelligence is really one between how intuition bathes itself in the virtual, or the past, in contrast to “practical impulse oriented towards the future.”

These formulations have always bothered me, because they seem to privilege the past over the future; since the past is the only location of that virtuality which exceeds the actual, and which allows for things to change. These thinkers claim (rightly) that the future is open, that it is not entirely determined in advance by the past out of which it grows; and yet they seem to belittle the future, by returning us always to the past. I would like a notion of potentiality (or the virtual) that is more open to futurity: that sees potentiality as unactualized futurity, rather than as a reservoir of pure pastness. This would go along with my sense that science fiction gives expression to this futurity: SF does not predict the future, but expresses and explicates the real-but-not-actual elements of futurity that are part of our lived present. (“Real but not actual” is the Proustian phrase that Deleuze invokes on numerous occasions).

It strikes me (all too predictably, perhaps) that I can use Whitehead to resolve this predicament. Whitehead has a dual notion of God: there is both “the primordial nature of God” and “the consequent nature of God.” in my book Without Criteria I only discussed the primordial nature of God, which I equated, roughly, with potentiality or the virtual. God contains all the inactual “eternal objects” that can be actualized in particular events, and that make possible novelty rather than just mere repetition. But it strikes me now that the other aspect of God, the consequent nature, is exactly equivalent to Bergson’s (and therefore Deleuze’s and Virno’s) formulation of the past as preserving everything that happens (in contrast to the sheer passage of the present). That is to say, with his double nature of God, Whitehead separates out potentiality (or the virtual) as the reservoir of change from the “objective immortality” of a past that is preserved in ontological memory (even if not in particular empirical memories). This separation is precisely what is missing from Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno.

I need, at some point, to write an essay developing and expanding on this. (Unfortunately I don’t have the time to pursue this now: I am writing this blog entry as a note to myself for future elaboration).

Whitehead on Feelings

Here is the text of the talk I gave this past week at the International Whitehead Studies conference in Claremont, California. It is a bit rough and fragmentary, and it doesn’t have a proper conclusion. But since I do not know when, or even if, I will expand it into a proper article, I am posting it here.

I am especially interested in what Whitehead calls feeling. The word is everywhere in Process and Reality. But it is not necessarily used in the ways we might expect. Whitehead insists that "the word feeling is a mere technical term." He says that he is using it in order to designate "that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own." At another point, Whitehead defines feeling as "the term used for the basic generic operation of of the actual entity in question. Feelings are variously specialized operations, effecting a transition into subjectivity."

In other words, "feeling" for Whitehead means capture and appropriation, and the form of subjectivity that arises from all this. Feeling as "a mere technical term" is pretty much equivalent to what Whitehead elsewhere calls prehension: a more unusual word that doesn’t have common-language connotations (although we recognize it in composite words like apprehension and comprehension). Strictly speaking, a feeling is a positive prehension; Whitehead contrasts this to negative prehension, a mode in which things are not felt, but rather "eliminate[d] from feeling." Positive and negative prehensions are the way that any entity constitutes itself in the process of responding to other entities that precede it. In every encounter, you either feel whatever it is that you have encountered, or else you actively reject it from feeling. Most importantly, an entity encounters, feels, and picks up from, its own state of being in the immediate past, which is to say in "time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second." But an entity also encounters other entities in its vicinity. And ultimately, an entity encounters – at least to some extent, though quite often this extent is "negligable" – its entire world, whch is to say, in the terminology of physics, everything within the light cone of the entity.

Explicitly specifying that "feeling" is just a technical term is a way of warning us that we shouldn’t take it as anthropomorphically as we normally would. On Whitehead’s account, a tree has feelings – but they are probably quite different from the feelings that human beings have. A tree may well feel assaulted, for instance; we know that trees (and other plants) release pheromones when insects start eating their leaves. These emissions both act as a chemical attack on the predator, and warn other trees (or, indeed, other parts of the same tree) to take defensive measures as well. It is not ridiculous, therefore, to claim that a tree has feelings. However, it is unlikely that a tree would ever feel insulted or humiliated – these are human feelings that have no place in the life of trees.

Of course, if Whitehead had really wanted to separate the concept of feeling entirely from our human sense of the term, he could have avoided the word entirely – since it is already synonymous to the technical term prehension. That way he could have easily sidestepped all this baggage of already-existing connotations. Since he didn’t, I must assume that Whitehead wanted to draw on that baggage – even though he also pushes it aside by claiming to be using "a mere techincal term." Why might this be? Whitehead wants us to expand our idea of what feelings are beyond the human context; but at the same time he does not want to completely separate it from human experience. The feelings of a tree are quite different from the feelings of human beings, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of affinity between them.

This, of course, is the point at which many people will accuse Whitehead of anthropmorphism and projection. We can respond to this objection with Jane Bennett’s maxim that anthropomorphism helps us to avoid the far worse problems of anthropocentrism. After all, she notes, "too often the philosophical rejection of anthropomorphism is bound up with a hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency." In other words, attributing feeling to trees helps to shake us from our all-too-human, self-congratulatory belief that we are totally unlike all other entities: such as Robert Brandom’s view that we are sapient, whereas other living things are merely sentient. But actually, I don’t think that Whitehead is being anthropomorphic at all: rather, he is inverting the direction of anthropomorphic projections. For Whitehead, human feelings are in fact the exemplification, within our own experience, of a broader kind of process that is far more widely distributed among entities in the world. I cannot remember who first said this, but Whitehead’s actual procedure is – far from attributing human qualities to other organisms –to try to find more general processes, of which the human version that we are familiar with is just one, not necessarily privileged, example. Whitehead’s procedure is actually what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction.

Nonetheless, even with all these explanations, Whitehead’s use of feeling as a mere techincal term remains a bit counter-intuitive. He shores up his position by appealing to a number of philosophical precedents . He says that "this use of the term ‘feeling’ has a close analogy to Alexander’s use of the term ‘enjoyment’; and has also some kinship with Bergson’s use of the term ‘intuition.’ (Just as an aside, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to go back and look at Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity: I have never read it, but Whitehead clearly thinks highly of it, and Deleuze mentions it in passing as a great book).

In any case, Whitehead also – and more surprisingly than with his citations of Alexander and Bergson – closely associates his use of the word feeling with Descartes’ use of the equivalent Latin term sentire. Didier Debaise discusses this connection in his new book L’appât des possibles. For Descartes, sentire, the act of feeling, is the one indubitable fact of existence – my cogito really reduces to a sentio, since even if the content of the feeling is delusive, the fact of having a feeling is not. (Debaise implicitly draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s substitution of sentio for cogito). (It is worth noting that Whitehead quite frequently draws from the history of philosophy in this way; he find precedents by isolating crucial propositions from an earlier thinker whose general, overall position is entirely opposed to his own).

I am entirely convinced by Debaise’s reading, which is deeper and more complex than what I have space to discuss here. But I would like to point to another, equally odd philosophical borrowing in Whitehead’s discussion of feeling. After citing Alexander and Bergson, and before moving on to Descartes, Whitehead notes that "a near analogy [for his own use of the term ‘feeling’] is Locke’s use of the term ‘idea’, including ‘ideas of particular things’." The qualification of "particular things" is important. At several points in Process and Reality, Whitehead notes how – even though this contradicts Locke’s overall sensationalism – Locke nonetheles speaks of ideas that are "determined to one particular existent." What this means, for Whitehead, is that "in some sense one actual existent repeats itself in another actual existent." There is a lot to unpack here. I will only note two things. In the first place, an entity prehends, or feels, an entire prior entity: meaning the entity as a whole, rather than just its particular qualities. I see a tree, not just an aggregation of points of green (leaves) and grey (bark). I feel the entity itself, as well as feeling its "secondary qualities" (which are what Whitehead calls eternal objects). The "data" that we perceive are not just atomistic impressions; rather, "the datum includes its own interconnections."

In the second place, when Whitehead says that an entity "repeats itself", he means that entities do not just represent other entities, or the sensa emitted by other entities, as private mental pictures: rather, the earlier entity really is present in a certain way in the later one. I discuss this at length in my article "Whitehead on Causality and Perception." For Whitehead, causality and perception are the same thing. Or, more precisely: when an entity perceives another entity, this means that it is being affected by that other entity; perception in this way is a subset of being-affected in general, since entities also affect other entities in ways that are not immediately perceived; the sum of all these affections are what we mean by causality. As Michael Halewood mentioned to me, this means that Whitehead understands causality , not as a "law of nature," but rather as the tendency for the present to conform to the immediate past. Such is the baseline, or basic condition, of becoming for Whithead; although it is partly overcome when an entity introduces novelty in its prehension of a previous entity, rather than merely conforming to it.

There are several other places in Progress and Reality where Whitehead refers his own notion of feeling to Locke’s notion of ideas. For instance:

the terms ‘prehension’ and ‘feeling’ are to be compared with the various significations of Locke’s term ‘idea.’ But they are adopted as more general and more neutral terms than ‘idea’ as used by Locke, who seems to restrict them to conscious mentality.

And again:

Locke’s term idea, in his primary use of it in the first two books of the Essay, means the determinate ingression of an eternal object into the actual entity in question. But he also introduces the limitation to conscious mentality, which is here abandoned."

The important point here is that subjective experience need not involve, and can be detached from, consciousness. On the one hand, Whitehead catergorically insists that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." But he also continually reminds us that most of this "experience of subjects" is nonconscious. We feel more than we can know. And many organisms feel events in the world, without necessarily being conscious of what they feel. Trees for instance, have feelings, as many recent studies have shown (see, for instance, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz). Trees sense and feel the sunlight; they sense and feel water in the ground; they sense and feel when insects eat their leaves. But none of this necessarily means that trees are overtly conscious; most likely, they are not.

Whitehead’s distinction between feeling and consciousness helps to illuminate certain deadlocks in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Many philosophers – David Chalmers is a good example – insist upon a supposed special quality of consciousness, its irreducibility to physical process. Other philosophers – Daniel Dennett for example – deny that consciousness has any special qualities; but in giving a fully physical explanation, they end up by explaining it away. Galen Strawson has recentlly suggested that both positions are fallacious. On the one hand, there is no evidence, in the mind or elsewhere, for anything that transcends the physical. On the other hand, though, we don’t really know everything that physical processes or materiality can do; there is no ground for claiming that physicality somehow excludes mentality. I am inclined to agree with Strawson here; but the larger, Whiteheadian point is that the issue gets entirely confused when we simply equate mentality with consciousness. Neurobiologists have shown that many and perhaps most mental processes occur nonconsciously, and may well be absoutely inaccessible to consciousness. But we need not assume, as neurobiologists and philosophers of mind generally do, that all this nonconscious mental activitty can rightly be described as computation. Whitehead’s discussion of feeling gives us a broader picture of mental functioning than cognitive psychology does. I cannot develop this here, but my hunch is that feeling in this sense is a necessary precondition for cognition, but is not in itself cognitive.