A Change of Place / Network Power

I’ve been watching the utterly gripping scenes of the protests in Brazil over the past two weeks. This after watching the utterly gripping scenes of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. There’s something happening here!

I’ll leave it for other voices to explain the details of what is going on in Brazil. I’ve found this interview with a movement organizer in Jacobin Magazine to be very useful. My friends Maite Conde and Tariq Jazeel, who happen to be in Brazil these days, provided this excellent primer on the situation for Social Text. In this post, I want to take up several theoretical considerations as to why the protests have emerged as they have, and what their potential outcomes may be.

Maite and Riq attribute the mushrooming size of the protests to general popular dissatisfaction with globalization, the benefits of which (of course!) will probably never reach the vast majority of people:

“The ‘Brazil as an emerging economy’ narrative is not incidental here either. What is being expressed is the multitude’s sense – and to be clear, a multitude has certainly assembled – that it is not benefiting economically and developmentally while the nation-state’s international profile skyrockets and the elite and the upper middle class’s pockets get fuller and fatter. Emerging economy for whom? The manifestações have spiraled to articulate mass grievance about a range of issues that revolve around the state’s neglect of the people and their basic needs, as well as socioeconomic and political inequalities.”

I do not deny this analysis at all — it captures the sentiment perfectly. But I am left to question, why now? Brazilian history, after all, has never been particularly kind to the multitude, especially in times when the national economy has been “emerging” or in “ascendance.”

The most recent case-in-point would be the 1970s. Under military rule, Brazilian economic expansion was rather spectacular from 1968-1973, one of the fastest rising economies on the planet. The OPEC oil shock of 1973 definitely slowed growth, but unlike the stagflation of the US, the Brazilian economy continued to rumble along, in large part because military/political leaders infused it amply with the petro-dollar debt made available through the other end of OPEC shock. (I.e., the steep rise of oil prices created huge reserves of cash in OPEC nations which multinational banks were only happy to shit out… er, reinvest in the form of loans to Latin America, creating the bubble economy in debt that would explode in 1982.) And yet, the government of the 1970s was negligent — willfully and disdainfully negligent — of the rapid expansion of poverty that fueled the growth of essentially anarchic favelas. It is no mistake that the Comando Vermelho took control of Rio’s drug trade, and hence became the only true sovereign power in the favelas, at that time. And it is only now that the government seeks to root out the CV through direct military engagement, urban occupation that may or may not be permanent after 2016.

So why no massive protests in the 1970s? There are a good deal of parallels between now and then. Whereas Brazil is now one of the imputed stars of the global economy, back then Brazil was a leading emerging star of what was call the “international” economy of multinational capital. Whereas now the massive profits of globalization are concentrated in the upper echelon of Brazilian society (despite the relatively miniscule redistribution efforts of the Partido dos Trabalhadores), back then a good deal of Brazil’s middle and working classes slipped backwards into poverty. Obviously there are any number of historical differences one could point to between 1973 and 2013, but of the socio-economic pressures placed on the back of the lower classes (perversely brought about by economic expansion) are definitely similar.

One obvious difference between then and now is psychological: FEAR. The barriers to participation in any sort of dissident political manifestation are much higher when you know the spot down the block where the police are arbitrarily arresting and torturing your neighbors. The barriers are even higher when you don’t know where the police are taking them, even though you do believe for a fact that they are being abused. More than psychological, however, these barriers should be considered to be physical and spatial. The presence of fear in private space translates into the circumscription of certain kinds of (political) action in public space.

The circumscription of physical action is, more over, a function of the information made available in any given predicament, limiting or opening political options at key junctures in time and space. Fear in the case of military repression results from having just enough information of one’s environment on one hand, but not enough information on the other. Just enough awareness to speculate reasonably that fellow citizens are being tortured, but no awareness of when or where or how or why that torture occurs behind the walls of the barracks, out of view. What I wish to underscore hear is how flows of information (the constriction or opening thereof) intersect with space and place in ways that are directly relevant to political action.

The counter-example to what I have just described has occurred over the past several weeks. Now that the direct memories of the 1970s and 80s have faded from view, I would argue that the manifestações grew to such massive proportions — about 1 in every 200 Brazilians joined in, according to best estimates — precisely to the extent that there was no real fear of a military coup d’etat and mass arrests. More importantly, I would argue, the barriers to participation were greatly lowered due to social networking. After one sees how many Facebook friends have joined the march, joining in oneself becomes a far less difficult choice. Much has been made of low-level political participation via social networks — it is easier to click “Like” on the fanpage of Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution Now! than to actually fight in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution now. And it is therefore generally assumed that such “virtual” participation does not lead to “concrete” action in the street. After all, one can murder any number of passers-by virtually in a video game, yet it is entirely dubious that this leads to increased murders of actual passers-by on the street.  Yet under the right circumstance, it seems that a translation from “virtual” to “concrete” network power is precisely what has happened across Brazil.

Network power is created when flows of particular kinds of information become strong enough to carry along an affective identification with that information. Rather than merely surfing through webpages, networked users need to imagine themselves actually riding the waves of information they receive and send along the network. Information is not merely that which appears on the screen, but rather, those using the screen feel that they are integral to the production and reproduction of this information. In the case of today’s Brazil, fear (lack of information such that affective networks are made impossible) has been superseded by hope (affective investment in information shared across a network).

Under such definitions, hope and fear should be understood as operationalized information, rather than mere affective states. This may sound confusing, given that the operationalization of network power involves an affective identification with information. What I am conjecturing is that network power, once objectified, cannot be reduced to affect exclusively, even if affect is constitutive of it. A shift in understanding of this sort is necessary in order to analyze what has occurred in Brazil with any precision. The protests represent the concrete translation of informational-network power into the street. They transform the street into a politicized object, and this objectification is ultimately more significant and powerful than the exercise of any individual subjective political will. In concrete reality, the protesters form a mass that is incredibly difficult for authorities to move or channel. Once this mass is formed, it is no longer necessary for anyone even to move! Just look at the “silent” and “motionless” protests in Istanbul over the past few weeks. They are there, and there very being-there makes it difficult for police (or political regimes) to move them. In virtual reality, the protesters form a mass that can be photographed as a massive political object. I would hazard to guess that many if not most of the protesters were acting with full knowledge of that startling images of the protests that were being disseminated across the nation and across the planet. And this (correct!) envisioning of the objects-as-image only increased the power of the protest. Even those these images lack a certain amount of materiality, they have already altered the relation between the government and its people, and altered the perception of Brazil, and its place within globalized capitalism, from within and without.

Will these protests last, and will they thoroughly up-end the Brazilian government? My answer is a qualified “No.” Such events in Brazil seem to capture the national imagination for several days or weeks, such that they appear to be the most significant events in history, only to die down and be forgotten in short order. However, the real power of these demonstrations is not to be ignored. They are manifestations of objectified network power, and as such they cannot be dismissed as mere eruptions of subjective or affective hysteria. Here, a comparison with that most Brazilian of occurrences, Carnaval, is warranted. During Carnaval, the street becomes a place in which it feels as if (affective) the “normal” restrictions on intoxication, sex, dress and/or any sort of “illegitimate” behavior have been lifted. Of course, such affective suspension of the law amounts to panis et circenses thrown at the masses to distract them from their own subjugation/subjectification to power. I am not diminishing how fun it is to participate, nor how beautiful the celebrations may be. I am only saying that the supposed “suspension” of the law during Carnaval is transitory at best, reactionary at worst, and in no way represents any sort of revolutionary threat to the established order of things. Mandei plantar folhas de sonho no jardim do solar, as folhas sabem procurar pelo sol e as raízes procurar, procurar, mas as pessoas da sala de jantar são ocupadas em nascer e morrer.

By contrast the recent protests are not Carnavalesque. They may not result in any direct political outcomes, no formal presentation of political demands, no formation of political parties recognized by the state. This is because as political objects they will not, and perhaps cannot, articulate themselves within an official political order subtended on the notion of subjective will. The occupation of a street, or a square, or a park by an object of network power is in fact real politics on a concrete level. The Avenida Paulista has been occupied politically, and it will remain occupied as a political object, at least virtually, for a long time to come. Ocupada em nascer e morrer.

Stop Make Teach

Now that the semester is over, I will have to find new ways to distract myself from writing. Because, of course, as almost any writer will never tell you, writing is such a painful and painfully slow process that the writer must always invent some new pressing need to procrastinate.  Thus, the academic life is perfectly suited to writing, since it provides a steady stream of classes, mind-numbing committees, student evaluation policies, in short, a plethora of tedious tasks that take up enough of the day to provide less time to write. And with less time to write, less time to get into the swing of writing, might as well spend the time left in the day once the tedious tasks have finished to convince oneself to do something else. No time to get into the swing of writing? Maybe I’ll read! And then when I read I’ll naturally want to write! But of course, I’ll spend more time thinking about if I should read, and then what I should read if I do indeed read, and then the hours grow late and maybe I’ll just watch an hour of television, read a New Yorker article, and go to sleep.  Hey, at least I read the New Yorker article!  Half of it, anyway…  I wonder why almost any writer would never tell you all this…

With the semester now over, what to do? No petty students looking for an A- instead of a B+. No horrendous 4-6pp essays. No faculty meetings! My neighbor is mowing his lawn at the moment. He mows it at least two times a week, some times every other day. I think he does this to taunt me, to show me how superior his lawn is to my lawn.  My lawn, which to be frank with you, has more holes dug by the dogs than actual lawn. I don’t even know if my neighbor remembers my name, but surely he taunts me. Sees me through the window in front of my computer and thinks that this would be a perfect time to mow the lawn again, I’ll show him, whatever-his-name-is. You’ll say, “Surely you must be projecting.” And I’ll say, “Yes, but only projecting so as to find an excuse not to write. And don’t call me Shirley.”

The upside to the end of the semester is clearly not more yardwork. It is, however, more time to while away on the internets, blogging… To wit, if I’m not going to be writing the book, I may as well be writing something, anything. “Imageflood” needs more attention than the holes in the yard. So does “Urbanities,” soon to launch from the Open Humanities Press.

Or better still, let us say that I have my kind of blog, published in the ether. And the dogs have their own kind of blog, published by their paws scratching ever more deeply into what lies below… Exactly what I should be doing, too. Times like this, I learn from their wit, intelligence, learning…

Urbanities are…

Production in space.  Production of space.

Network densities, freed from networked destinies.

The planet as ecological system.  An environment, not a nature.  The sun never sets on the Anthropocene.  The dream of capitalism.  The sun always rises, and only their janitors are there to see it.

“A parabolic antenna, buried in the mud.”

The next Lionel Messi.  Forever.  The next Lionel train.  For Xmas.

Two-dimensional screens.  Three-dimensional printers.  Four-dimensional theories.  One-dimensional CEOs.

States’ rights – to work for a corner office on the top floor of a skyscraper downtown.

A flexion of fields.  A knot of cables.

Smart cities.  Numb cyborgs.

Don’t leave home without it.  In fact, just don’t leave home.  Might as well.

Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes.

Drones. Drones. Drones. Drones. Drones. Drones.

Subjects or Objects in Latin America

Recently on Facebook, Alberto Moreiras has initiated a series of threads in the wake of a rather bizarre Chinese interview with Walter Mignolo (posted on Mignolo’s blog) on the concept of “decoloniality.” In response, I would hazard to say that a debate over “decoloniality” is a non-starter and should be avoided. First, because most advocates of the concept are not participating in this group yet. And second, because “decoloniality” lacks rigor and suffers from a perverse hermeneutic circle of its own ideology. It’s only counter-offer is “You don’t agree with decoloniality because you haven’t properly decolonized yourself yet.” The far more important theoretical debate is one between new schools of subjectivism vs. new schools of objectivism. “Decoloniality,” such as it is, is a subjectivism grown passé: Simply validate the indigenous or subaltern subject-position (“locus of enunciation”) and everything will turn our OK. Where this kind of logic appears to have taken hold of the state (Bolivia? Venezuela?), however, political success is entirely subtended by the extraction of water and energy resources, flows of objects sustained by global networks/markets. (To paraphrase Susana Draper in her comments to Moreiras on Facebook, how to be anti-extractivist when your political movement is subtended by extraction?) Is the response for Latin America a renewed, militant Subject? Or is it an adaptation of Object-Oriented Ontologies? Are Subject or Objects even allowed, properly speaking, in Latin America in the first place, given its postcolonial condition? Or has postcoloniality been surpassed? The test-case may be Brazil, with redistributionist governments firmly entrenched for some time now, at the same time that it stands poised to become a central node in the global petroleum network…

Re: Galloway and Mirrors of Production

Craig Epplin has just published an excellent post on Alexander Galloway’s recent critique of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) from the last issue of Critical Inquiry. I think Craig captures the problem precisely, and opens up the question of speculation in productive ways. I won’t summarize the debate between historical materialism and speculative realism (SR) which Galloway has rather elegantly opened. I would simply advise you to read Craig’s post on Nonhuman Collectives before continuing further here.

Galloway’s critique, it seems to me, rests on a dedication to a speculative (or specular) subject — a human constituted through speculation so as to be capable of historical critique. He therefore chastises SR/OOO for engaging in the wrong kind of speculation — practicing a sort of objectivism that unwittingly mirrors contemporary capitalism. On one hand I find it bizarre how many philosophers, particularly in the realm of political theory, cling so dearly the Western subject, ie the specular subject. (If you have further interest in how I understand “speculation” and “Western subject,” two essays are vitally important: Paul de Man’s “Autobiography as De-Facement” and Salvador Elizondo’s “Teoría del Infierno.”)  There is not a little conservatism to their radicalism in maintaining specular-subjectivity as central, a holding-on to a last vestige of Eurocentrism, and here I am thinking of Badiou and Zizek, and those like Galloway in their wake. The argumentative circles one has to run in order to maintain the borders between subject and object are quite extraordinary, paradoxical and anachronistic. Zizek’s entire world-view depends on an act of castration, a fundamental and originary cut between subject and object, even though it has been quite apparent to him from the get-go that this cut never actually takes place. Badiou has to have his empty-set, or else it would be impossible for Mao to form a new historical subject after-the-fact. Obviously I’m being overly facetious here, but with all due respect I hope my stance is clear. All concerned in these debates knows full well that the self-knowing (specular) subject is an ideological fantasy, and that this fantasy has been projected into our concrete reality as the kernel of Western modernity and capitalist exploitation. All concerned also know that the Age of Don Quixote has finally come to end, rendering the quixotic quest to project fantasies of subjective-formation into reality as something of an historical relic. New systems of power, agency, action, and mediation have emerged — such that holding up the quixotic relic of subject-formation may seem an act of militant resistance. Which it isn’t.

On the other hand I wish Speculative Realists would drop the “Speculative,” both in name and in practice. Latour’s Actant-Network Theory is valuable to the extent that it provides insight into how we might see the engagement of humans and nonhumans as an emergent system of interactions in which the limit between them in concrete space is limited, if it exists at all.  In other words, my identity as a human “Subject” is not necessarily constituted by me facing an Other/Object and seeing my self reflected back to myself. Rather, the identity “me” and the identity “Other” may be mutually emergent in the space between one and one, through a process of intermediation. (It is significant therefore that we understand such intermediation as a *complex system*, but that is grist for another mill.)  This process will necessarily “resemble” capitalism if intermediation is conducted through the machinery of capitalist production, a curious feedback loop in which the object constituted through human-nonhuman intermediation becomes the medium constituting human-nonhuman intermediation. Curious, but hardly difficult to theorize or understand, as witnessed by the final section of Vilém Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis.  If my identity has become informationalized across a network, then I can rapidly and cheaply produce multiple identities and deposit them here and there.  This thought would have been patently schizophrenic but a few decades ago, but now it is business as usual. Literally. As Galloway is correct to point out, global capitalism is increasingly reliant on what I would call “nano-labor,” in which surplus value is generated via the exploitation of infinitesimally small units of work — such as updating my status of Facebook or (gulp) writing a blogpost on WordPress. I can use digital machines to create identities (or “masks” as Flusser would call them), and a corporation can profit by aggregating the minimal labor required to do so.  If I produce multiple “masks” and put them on and off, “I” do not have an identity inside myself; “I” am the aggregate of multiple identities flowing into and out of my body. If this last statement does not seem ridiculous to you, then you would agree that ANT need not be taken as being speculative or specular.  “I” don’t see myself in a digital network, and the network is not a “Real” nonsubjective object of desire (in the Zizek-Lacan sense) folded into a history of subject-formation, because “I” and “network” (Self and Other) do not exist as unique stable entities prior to the interaction. And perhaps more importantly, one is not “inside” or “outside” the other; there are flows of intermediation. In this sense “network” is not quite the best term either, since it implies a closed-circuit of communication between actants. For me, “complex system” will have to suffice for now. And these complex systems, pace Galloway, are not of comparable size or value. A human body is a complex system, Confucianism is a complex system, garbage collection is a complex system, snowfall is a complex system (to say the least!), IT infrastructure has multiple embedded complex systems (as does the human body). This does not mean that they are all the same complex system, or of equal value for this or that purpose, even though entities like “citizen” or “political power structure” may emerge from the intermediations between them.

Let me end this rambling response to Prof. Epplin with a few provisos. First, I do not myself take sides in any debate between realists and materialists, or subjectivists and objectivists.  I merely rob what I need of them and attempt to sidestep their debates to the extent possible. In this regard, second, I think that Craig as staked a very smart position at the end of his post, one with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Much to the contrary, I find in the work of writers like Latour and Manuel DeLanda (among others) the possibility of historicizing even more precisely, for they understand objects not only through the lens of human society and class structure but also as complexes of nonhuman forces and relations that exceed “our” purview.

I think what Craig is saying is that one cannot stake the future entirely “subject,” or entirely on “object.” Historical and material critique is certainly necessary, especially given the vast quantities of misery being produced in today’s world. But critique need not hinge entirely on One or Other.  My third and final observation is this, then:  The problem with these sorts of debates is that in order to engage with them fully, one must enter into a zero-sum game of subject-or-object. How can you have your meat if you won’t eat your pudding: If you’re with the subject, then no object; and if you are with the object, then you can’t have a subject. As if those were the only two categorical options available to us if we are to know the universe, society, politics, power, literature, etc. Certainly there must be further entities we might consider, and not just “nonhuman.” For my part I would explore the possibility of a “no-subject” and “dis-placement” — matters for which I have no space here. In any case… I like my Coke and Pepsi, but I don’t really like them, I never drink them, I think they taste vile in fact, and oftentimes I would much rather prefer to open a bottle of Malbec with my loved ones.

Top Ten for the End

As a music geek I suppose it’s my duty to provide an annual Top Ten list of the year’s best albums. As a human being I suppose I should be keenly aware that the world will end on Friday, Mayan calendar and all that. The merest possibility of that eventuality adds a lot of pressure – I mean, this list may have to be one for the ages. And while we’re on the topic, Mayans are not Aztecs, so I wish websites would stop showing the Aztec Sun Stone when talking about the Mayan calendar. In any case, you’ve only got a scant few precious hours of existence left. So you better rush out to get the following as quickly as possible:

10.  Grizzly Bear, “Shields”.  Dreamy, awash in silvery tone.

9.  Flying Lotus, “Until the Quiet Comes”.  It’s one thing to sample jazz in hip hop.  It’s another thing to make jazz out of hip hop. It’s well known that he’s related to Coltrane. But I think it’s really Miles who would have been proud of this album, by far the most cohesive sonic landscape by Flying Lotus to date.

8.  Zani Diabate, “Tientalaw”:  What is it about Mali?  Oh yeah I remember:  It’s the birthplace of the blues, which gives Mali’s music something instantly recognizable to an American ear, and something unrecognizably different at the same time.  I’m hesitant to go all world-music when making lists, and I confess to know next to nothing about this music.  I do know that it was Zani Diabate’s final recording, which means his life was cut off right at the prime of his power I imagine.  This album is absolutely mesmerizing.

7.  Tame Impala, “Lonerism”.  I spent many months earlier this year immersed in Dad Rock.  Trust me you wouldn’t have wanted to see me after a week of nonstop listening to the Doobie Brothers discography, utter madness.  In any event the whole experience gave me renewed appreciation of Paul McCartney, “RAM” above all.  But one also finds the occasional deep-cut on a Wings album that’s lovingly produced with an incredible ear for melody.  Lonerism isn’t a rehash of Dad Rock at all.  It’s contemporary, synths and beats.  But throughout there’s the same attention to melody that one finds on “Let ‘Em In” or Nilsson’s “Aerial Ballet”.  Am I crazy to hear that?  What a fool believes?

6.  The Avett Brothers, “The Carpenter”.  This is the country-fried album that I put on when I’m hanging out with friends on the front porch just before sunset after a blistering hot summer day, cracking open the perfect ice cold beer.  And it’s not even summer, and I don’t even have a front porch.  Or friends.  Beer I got.

5.  Cody Chesnutt, “Landing on a Hundred”. Wonderfully conceived update of MPG-era Marvin Gaye, and catchy as hell.  I can only hope that this kind of throwback trend (read: Adele, Amy Winehouse, Lana delwhatever) is now opening up to the male voice, too.

4.  Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel…”.  The songwriting has improved, the overthetop madwoman persona has intensified, and now she’s making Fiona Apple albums instead of Jon Brion albums (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

3.  Dirty Projectors, “Swing Low Magellan”.  That weird tricky rhythm!  But gawd, those outrageous harmonies!

2.  Rush, “Clockwork Angels”. This pick really surprises me.  But can you think of any other 40 year-old band that still rocks this hard?  Think about it, these guys came out at the same time as Kiss and Aerosmith, bands that long ago sold any shred of integrity for a dinner theater in Branson, MO.  “Clockwork Angels” has it all: a sci-fi concept album, allusions to “2112” on its cover, and mad mad mad rock chops that still put any of these new hipsterpitchfork.com bands to shame.  Honestly I pretty much gave up on Rush around “Grace Under Pressure” or “Power Windows”.  “Clockwork Angels” has me reassessing that decision.  Bow down and show some f*king reverence.

1.  Sharon Van Etten, “Tramp”.  Alternately lush and loud, embarrassingly intimate and distant, at once a throwback to Throwing Muses, Mazzy Star, early PJ or Nick Cave, and yet this album still sounds like it’s way out ahead of its time.  I could just play this album on repeat all day long, and believe me I have.  Utterly impressive from start to finish.

Honorable Mentions:

Spiritualized, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”.  It’s not “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space”.  But he did almost die to make it, and it’s worth a mention for “Hey Jane” at the very least.

Chairlift, “Something”.  This is a band that could potentially start producing some truly inventive pop-rock in the near future. Or not. I thought the same about Elk City years ago. Remember them?

Boyd Lee Dunlop, “The Lake Reflections”.  If you don’t like Boyd Lee Dunlop then you don’t respect Buffalo.  And if you disrespect Buffalo I don’t like you. Is that a syllogism? A broken one perhaps, but as always, my logic is impeccable. Boyd’s logic is more impeccable.

I’d rather work than blog

Simple enough. A couple of months ago I found myself blogging more than writing. Not good. Election craziness rather than critical theory. Not good. So I stopped, blogging that is, and started writing. And it was good. In the meantime, some stuff happened. News and stuff. A re-election. Good news. Some travels, some new tunes, a new puppy, happiness. When you’re blogging all the time, you see the world in terms of the next blog post. But in fact the world can move at its own pace, and when you stop blogging you remember to realize that. So after you finish the next sentence, fold down the laptop, put it to sleep, pet the new puppy (and let him lick your face), get back to work (well… tomorrow morning), and raise a glass (Johnson Family, CabSauv, 2009) to a slow world moving at a pace that remains, after all, felicitously analog…