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Monday, March 28, 2011

When all that is solid melts into thin air

It should not be surprising that there has been resistance to our most recent readings in class discussions. If Brennan is right about the power of the fantasies structuring our everyday lives and the desire to hold on to the illusion of a self-contained subject then the attempt to work through these questions should not be an easy task. 

 Brennan bombards the reader with a litany of attacks for being duped into thinking that they are discrete and disembodied. But for all of her grandstanding about why the subjectivist paradigm falters, she in many ways reifies its force. The Transmission of Affect begins with the subject in search of an infantile origin of the foundational fantasy (although I think she would argue that she is criticizing a completely genetic or essentialist explanatory principle for guiding human action, I think there are times where her principles become seemingly transcendent). She proceeds to present a mix of recent scientific developments in understanding pheromones and an analysis  of the theories surrounding group psychology and crowd theory. And finally ends by constructing a somewhat speculative theory for finding a way out of the contemporary impasse. All of this amounts to a humanist reformism.

Massumi, on the other hand, begins with a larger question, the “intrinsic connection between movement and sensation” (1). He starts in media res because that’s where everything interesting happens. Massumi’s exemplary method is frustratingly brilliant. His experimental form of affirmative critique allows him to merge the metaphysical with the everyday. In the chapter on threats and the logic of preemption he goes on to indicate that what is needed is a metaphysics of feeling. Thus making his project much more ambitious in scope. While I refer above to Brennan as making speculative conjecture about the nature of experience I do not mean it in a disparaging way but rather to accuse her of not being abstract enough.

Understanding the self as becoming and relational opens up the possibility for new lines of thought. One that can provide a theoretical vocabulary more adept at dealing with “an understanding of our information-and image-based late capitalist culture, in which so called master narratives are perceived to have foundered” (27). The recent financial crisis demonstrates even better than Massumi’s last story in chapter 1 the ways in which the immaterial has become material in the postmodern era of late capitalism. Stock market fluctuations in times of crises demonstrate the virtual nature of global economies in which the signs of value are almost completely divorced from their physical referent. Massumi writes “The ability of affect to produce an economic effect more swiftly and surely than economics itself means that affect is a real condition, an intrinsic variable of the late capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory” (45). This is not simply a typical postmodern move that would reduce the realities of material production to the realm of representation. Rather it evinces the ways that affect materially functions in the tensions of capital’s contradictions. It is a materialist analysis of the immaterial functioning of capital. It is almost a hyper-materialism, an extension of the realm that we consider as material.

Reality Snowballs

Massumi’s metaphor feeds forward into the beginning of the first chapter. It begins with a story about the video of a man who builds a snowman that then melts. This video embodies the “productive paradox” (38). The snowman is simultaneously virtual and actual, structured yet dynamic, cultural and natural. The snowman is the product of man and a specific cultural artifact but it can only be constructed in the fleeting moments when the snow and conditions allow. It is a real thing that exists or did exist yet the participants of the study only experience it through the video. The snowman illustrates the potential to animate nature but also the ways in which the laws of nature move us. In my next post on Massumi I will extend this analysis to point to the ways that an understanding of affect holds the potential for a radical post-humanism.

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