Never mind the Gregory Bateson crib in the title. Never mind the incredibly laborious reconfiguration of Niklas Luhmann-type second order systems theory, or the apparent attribution of such thinking to Michel Foucault. Never mind the acres of contorted language that appears now as critical theory’s version of a subprime mortgage-cum-credit default swap.
Brian Massumi’s ‘National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an ecology of powers‘ (Theory Culture and Society, 2009) is the work of a notable post-Deleuzean theorist who takes on–in one grasp–the then-contemporary significance of war and weather as the twin poles of a transformed biopolitics. His query is precisely what to make of biopolitics in a moment of high-neoconservatism, a moment marked by the paradigmatic performances of George W Bush at the apex of the global war on terror and that maybe-climate-catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, still the most costly ever US unnatural disaster.
Massumi reads Foucault through biopolitics, but more crucially against a certain way of thinking governmentality as ‘environmental.’ Without so much as a nod toward Arun Agrawal for proffering the term ‘environmentality,’ Massumi takes this stamp of the predicament of a neo-con problematic: “The shift in the figure of environment has moved it out of the reach of normalization. It asserts its own normality, of crisis: the anywhere, anytime potential for the emergence of the abnormal. It has nothing but variables, perpetually churning. [...] Environmentality as a mode of power is left no choice but to make do with this abnormally productive ‘autonomy'” (Massumi 155, citing Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics).
(Incidentally, in his Terror from the Air, Peter Sloterdijk relies heavily on Marilyn Strathern’s concept of ‘making explicit,’ also without any acknowledgement of her seminal After Nature (2009, Cambridge).)
Massumi’s problematic is to configure a space for thinking the irruption of constant threats within an emergent world that not only creates knowledge of threats (and therefore understands ‘terrorism’ or ‘climate change’ within a specific epistemic field) but, more drastically, creates the threats themselves qua real threats. What world is this, then, in which biopower once sought to regulate the aleatory events of nature through statistics, social planning and institutions, but now is forced to manage the radical contingency of a world of its own making? Are we still then thinking of a world that can be characterized as ‘making live, letting die…’ – the classical configuration of biopower?
It is clear, at any rate, that the practices, instruments and techniques at stake are wholesale different. The neo-con connection between war and weather is aptly drawn here, to the extent that in both cases we can trace a Paul Virilio-like trajectory toward information bombs, toward visuality and so many strategies of dèception. Virilio characterizes the US/UN intervention in Kosovo using that term which, in French, alludes to games of seduction – a tactic of inflated optimism and ultimate disappointment.
To be honest, Massumi’s essay here leaves me feeling like that.
He is correct, in a generic sense, of having defined the problem in this way. I rather like Jake Kosek’s more empirically astute take on a similar set of concerns in his recent piece in Cultural Anthropology (‘Ecologies of Empire: On the new uses of the honeybee,’ 2010), where he takes up military programming of bees for anti-terror purposes. His political entomology, built around Bush Administration practices that outstrip the imaginations of armchair philosophers, defines neo-conservatism more aptly than Bush’s speeches from the floodplains of Louisiana.
It part this may be viewed as a call for theorists like Massumi to trust the theory they are citing. He quotes Foucault: “Innovation, that is to say, the discovery of new techniques, sources, and forms of productivity, and also the discovery of new markets and new resources for manpower” came to be “absolutely consubstantial with the functioning of capitalism” (156 citing Foucault Birth of Biopolitics). If this is true, then like the emergent biosecurity threats that may irrupt from generative swamps of industrial agroproduction, critical philosophy must find its problems through some critical empirical process.
In addition to his framing of the problem, I also find him correct (but unoriginal) on two other accounts. 1) A redefinition of nature – from stasis to threat. Massumi argues that once stable configurations of nature as nonhuman other, as temporally static and objective grounding for objective knowledge, give way to a dynamically complex nature-as-immanent-potential. “Its form is a priori neither human nor natural. Its form is in the looming, as-yet-undetermined potential to just suddenly show up and spread” (160). The objective here is to identify a shift in the problematic of nature as inert toward nature as, well, a lot more active. Concomitant with that is this shift toward management and intervention as modes of practical reason. But many people have been making this point – indeed I made it in a paper in Parallax in 2008 (‘Intervention, Management, Technological Error’), and in my dissertation (2008) discussed at length the ontological status of ‘threat’ as distinct from ‘risk.’
It strikes me that a lot of interesting questions could emerge here, but don’t. For example, I would like to note that the experience of nature as very active threat calls into question the overarching premises of Latour’s work, which is forever demonstrating precisely that nonhuman actants are indeed very active. In other words, whence the uneasy similarity of perspectives here? And then how do we describe neocon practices which precisely do not view nature as passive but as open to constant manipulation? What do we make of these perspectives? I attempt answers in The Prey of Uncertainty and Accounting for Atmosphere, but here I’ll just note that Strathern, in her 1980 ‘No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case,’ suggests that Westerners are apt to view conventions as artifacts, that is, as things with a provenance (the outcome of some contingent social process) and therefore also constantly subject to novel, innovative uses. The subject of action here, I argue, is one of speculation, and there is an inevitable gloss between nomos and logos, between rule as norm and the logical operation through which speculation is possible.
2) Massumi is also generally correct to identify a transformation from biopolitics to what he calls ‘ontopower.’ In a similar vein, Steve Woolgar is talking about onto-governance these days, and some of these issues were already on the table when Andrew Barry wrote Political Machines: Governing a technological society (Athone 2001). I think it is quite apt to locate a tremendous amount of generative activity where highly specific objects are being designed and implicated into extensive social worlds, but the question is really what to make of it? There is a fair amount of expectation of profound results invested in this word, ontology. Even at the level of social practice serious investments are being made in Heideggerian projects of care, community and being present, and in part I do sympathize (as I and others, notably Candis Callison, have written) with a diagnosis of the ‘becoming ontological’ of climate.
Massumi make an interesting distinction between the territorialized ‘natured natures’ of contemporary emergence and the deterritorializing ‘naturing natures’ of preemptive anticipation. “The emphasis on natured natures’ operative reality and effective givenness distinguishes this concept from social constructivism’s notion of naturalization” (165). Yes, I buy this. Contrast: “Having no territory of its own, naturing nature can only ‘give’ of itself [earlier he says "lends itself"], to various territories’ systemic self-organizing. What it gives is a charge of indeterminancy to-be-determined, which strikes with driving force” (167) And “threat… becomes the bellwether of naturing nature for the complex, crisis incubating environment of life. Preemptive power directly follows” (167).
The issue here is that threat anticipation operates in a domain of potentiality such that power then comes to bear on what might happen. Preemptive strike is the mandate under scrutiny here, so between the poles of war and weather Massumi identifies a common form of anticipation of unlivable worlds. “Preemptive power operates on a proto-territory tensed with a compelling excess of potential which renders it strictly unlivable.” (167). What he thus seems to propose is a strong link in neocon doctrine that binds the destruction of New Orleans to the destruction of Baghdad. (Would have been nice for him to actually write that.)
OK, this has gone on long enough. The article reads like a sort of laundry list of theoretical flotsam. The Luhmann-esque systems theoretical language is a serious fail on Massumi’s part – it’s totally unclear why he needs a system-environment distinction, and nowhere does he play heed to the critical distinction between first and second order observations needed for any serious uptake of systems theory. He would do better to underscore information theory’s real problematic of uncertainty in anticipation, and its reading of the ‘universe as information.’ His insistence on only pointing toward real world dynamics rather than working through specific instances, while adding layer on layer of cryptic language (Whitehead! Foucault! Agamben! Bateson! Deleuze and Guattari!) makes serious thinking very hard, and the unintelligibility of many passages calls into question his stream of consciousness. I’m not joking in making the comparison to a credit default swap. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is duped into believing this is the real deal, risk free money.
The strongest point I take from this of relevance for a critical human science of climate change is that similarities of form pertain to the status of preemption in climate policy and in counter-terrorism, and that these pertain not only modes of knowledge and action but also to devastated spaces in which life is made unlivable. The exercise could have been done much more easily by discussing those devastated spaces rather than circling exhaustively the predictable tracks of Massumi’s mind. For all that, the specific practices of speculative anticipation are pretty interesting, and Massumi would have done well to actually investigate them.