INFLeXions No. 3 - Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics (Oct. 2009)
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NH: I think changing the concept from a noun to a verb, from collective to, as you suggest, making collective—opens up potential for new ways to think and do collaboratively. To think the concept of the collective—a coming together of bodies that initiate a process of collaboration, participation, extension, and sharing—is to think and practice a politics of collective assemblages. This provokes a new ethics of practice that is not based on the idea of the common, but on the idea of technicity, and raises the question of the relation between theory and practice. How is it that from practice and experimentation concepts emerge? How do we create the conditions for this relation to take place?
EM: You raise a number of interesting issues. I think the question of technicity is key, and it’s an issue that comes up, in one way or another, in all the interviews in this issue. Bruno Latour talks about techniques with respect to the singularity of the project. Techniques, as each of the texts in this issue underline, are modes of existence that create nodes of importance, in the Whiteheadian sense. Brian Massumi calls them “performed transition mechanisms,” referring especially to what we, at the SenseLab, have been calling “techniques of relation.”
The danger of the idea of the common – which only begins to become interesting if we move it toward the notion of the commons – is that there is a presumption that the project pre exists the problematic. The common claim is to know in advance what is at stake. To predefine the project in this way subverts any potential for creating a new set of problems. The project, in these terms, can only be deciphered, categorized, judged within the frame of its preexistence. Techniques, on the other hand, are always immanent to the event in its unfolding. They are not equal to all tasks and must therefore be reinvented each time. Techniques are neither specifically political nor artistic nor ethical. They move across, emphasizing points of emergence or singularization. Techniques thus potentially create conditions for a singular unfolding of the event.
This idea of flexibility is key to micropolitics. Flexibility is not a moral standard. As Maurizio Lazzarato points out, debt is a technique used by governments to promote an individualization of society through a resubjectification of the individual. Debt is a pliable technique which is indefinitely flexible, its flexibility key to its deployment by techniques of governmentality – as we’ve seen in the 2008 2009 economic crisis. Maurizio Lazzarato talks about debt’s flexibility in terms of how debt creates and is used to mobilize regimes of subjectivity. “[Debt],” he says, “is an economic technique and a technique for the production or the control of subjectivity.” It’s important to underline this mutability of technique, I think, to make it clear that the micropolitical is neither the smaller version of the political, nor its moral standard. The micropolitical passes through the political at different levels with different effects. It is, as Brian Massumi says, “a perception of a qualitatively different kind.”
To come back to your question, then, I think we create the conditions for ethico aesthetic practices at the micropolitical level through a close attention to techniques. As we’ve seen in our work at the SenseLab, this requires flexibility and the ability to allow a project to fail. Each project creates its own conditions for experimentation and proposes its own techniques. But without attentive development of the potential of these openings, a project can easily fall flat. That’s why we spend so much time in the preparation of each event. Each event is its own fine balance between choreography and improvisation. What we seek to do – as we’ve done for our recent event,Society of Molecules – is to facilitate crossings and openings by creating limits on how the event can come to expression. In the case of Society of Molecules, these constraints were meant to enable certain precise ways of creating affective tonalities between and across different local constituencies, giving rise to specific techniques mobilized at the local level.
NH: In the interview with Adam Bobbette he talks about the relation between politics and art as having to do with perception, and I think this links well to the relation between thought and practice. He says, “What I have been learning from Smithson, and which you find taken up by so many others (including Deleuze and de Landa) is that politics is always enacted through perception. It must allow particular kinds of worlds to be sensible while foreclosing others. Here then, politics crosses the threshold of aesthetics. And so what then might it be to practice on perception, what other kinds of worlds become perceptible?” How do you think we might engage with this idea of the relation between politics and perception in the context of a micropolitics?
Politics and perception come together in this non conscious re jigging. It is non conscious in the way that affect is, working not on the pre constituted body, but on the in bracing of the body becoming. In this betweenness of feeling and doing, there is no content as yet. In Massumi’s words: “That affective quality is all there is to the world in that instant. It takes over life, fills the world, for an immeasurable instant of shock. Microperception is this purely affective rebeginning of the world.”
Again, what seems important is to remember that the micropolitical is not in itself a modality for “positive” change. Micropolitics is not situated squarely on the political spectrum in terms of “right” or “left.” It moves across, transversally. Brian Massumi and Maurizio Lazzarato both make this very clear. Speaking about the Bush regime in the United States, Massumi emphasizes the politics of threat that coursed through the population during Bush’s 8 year tenure. Politics that operate through their effects are micropolitical: they “work on many levels and at many rhythms of bodily priming to ensure a relative success.” Such techniques are seen everywhere in the American war machine, and although they are less mobilized in the Obama administration, there certainly remains a reservoir of micropolitical potential from Bush’s tenure. This potential remains open to reclaiming by the “right” and the “left” – reclaiming has always been a part of the active passage between the micro and macro on the political spectrum – but this excess of micropolitical potential might just as well open onto new forms of collective community organizing as mobilizing itself in affective politics of fear. We saw the potential mobility of the affective within the micropolitical in the Obama electoral race: Obama deployed many of the affective strategies we had seen during the Bush regime, but instead of tweaking them toward fear, he tweaked them toward hope.
It would be interesting to explore further the more negative reactions to the micropolitical expressed in both Isabelle Stengers’ and Bruno Latour’s interviews. Isabelle Stengers prefers to think the potential of the between – what we would call the micropolitical – as the mesopolitical, emphasizing the milieu. For her, there remains a “coefficient of ‘polemic truth’ associated to micropolitics.” For me, Stengers concept of the “meso” is very much in line with how I understand the micropolitical. This suggests something quite interesting: that how the micropolitical has been mobilized within the particular Franco Belgian academic/political scene in which Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers circulate may have undone it of its potential. The micropolitical as the thought of the milieu has been reinscribed into the value based micro/macro dichotomy. From the thought of the middle, the micropolitical has become the edge of a spectrum that demonizes the complex interweaving of different political regimes. It has lost its capacity to move across and through.
NH: And Guattari says, “Any micropolitical approach consists precisely in the attempt to assemble the processes of singularization on the very level from which they emerge.”
I think that the military, for example in both the U.S. and Israel, has an understanding of how the micropolitical works in relation to a milieu. What I mean by this is that the military has come up with very sophisticated techniques in relation to how war affects and infects— technologically, architecturally and cartographically (take for example Eyal Weizman’s work on the architecture of occupation in Palestine and also how much that influenced the architecture of occupation in Iraq, or for example the “Arab” simulation villages that have been built in the deserts of Nevada and the infamous “Chicago” base in Israel), and academically (take the RAND corporation for example, the not for profit institution for research and development playing a key role in implementing and influencing policies and decision making for the US government). We see how the micropolitical in this case is working intensely with the macropolitics of warfare. We really see how the micropolitical and macropolitical are in constant relation, composing the “becoming work” of politics.
And from there maybe we can go back to this question of why the micropolitical is valuable as a point of departure for a new politics. I am thinking here in particular of how Guattari takes up micropolitics as " a question of making a new kind of pragmatics enter these fields: a new kind of analysis that actually corresponds to a new kind of politics."
Essence is a macropolitical concept. It engages at the level of fabulation, creating an ideal milieu with a retrospectively continuous history. Through essence, we come to the vocabularies that define, that situate the absoluteness of a concept such as native, woman, national etc. Singularities, on the other hand, are unique convergences that appear as remarkable points. This appearance is brief and completely depends on the conditions of the convergence. When it perishes it can never be resuscitated, and yet, similarly to Whitehead’s subjective form, it can have an effect on future singularities.
In the context of Australian Aboriginal culture, the convergences of singular effects regularly move transversally between the micro and the macropolitical. As Glowczewski points out in her discussion of the “death in custody” issue, when Aboriginal research groups came together to propose recommendations for macropolitical dissemination, their way of working together was micropolitically motivated. She explains: “it was absolutely incredible working in an environment of Aboriginal people of different generations with different experiences […] and watching them invent answers to all the constraints that the state was bringing to them. In the end the process didn’t restrict itself solely to the theme of death and custody: they were rebuilding everything, education, health, justice system, police, housing, environmental issues. And they proposed this incredible sort of weaving, throughout the continent, of more than 360 recommendations, which were given to the parliament and voted by the parliament and out of 360 recommendations maybe only 30 were applied ten years later.” What stands out here is that in order to address one particular law, a mode of collaboration had to be put into place. This mode of collaboration had to be sensitive to different modalities of thinking and speaking, writing and disseminating information, crossing as it did a population with different oral and written skills – including many elders who never learned to read and write but whose views on the matter were of the highest importance. This sensitivity to a collective process resulted in much more than a bureaucratic decision concerning one specific problem. It became the cultivation of a process that opened itself up to the wider effects of the “death in custody” issue. Creating a kind of collective subjectivity, the discussions became focused on the wide web of convergences this particular law could bring into focus. Their concerns were as micropolitically oriented as they were macropolitically inclined. For instance, they became concerned with environmental issues that cross different communities in different ways. These are issues that have macropolitical effects – they bring with them global environmental consequences as well as national ones that in turn affect the governance of different milieus of Aboriginal culture. They are micropolitical because they emerge from the milieu. They become macropolitical when, for instance, they bring forth new laws at the national level that effect the governance of communities and territories. Take mining, for instance. Criticism has been voiced that in view of new mining operations Aboriginal “Dreamings” (Jukurrpa) have had a tendency to “spring up” that weren’t considered constitutive to a particular aboriginal community. The Dreaming here refers in part to a spiritual ancestor who resides within specific landscape affordances. To talk of these Dreamings as though they could be owned by certain groups at the expense of others is to misunderstand the strong rhizomatic quality of Aboriginal culture where land does not stand in for parsed out territory. Although Aboriginal communities do have direct influence over very specific sites (and/as Dreamings) these Dreamings can only exist in a network of emergence that gives life to the present of collective becoming across groupings. To take over a part of land as though it were not in some way connected to another is to cut across a system of life. This of course has both micro and macropolitical consequences. In the case of holding back transnational mining projects it may affect both the national position in a global market and in that sense effect macropolitical change. On the local level, the funds used by mining might have been mobilized for community projects that could have given the community a certain independence. Either way, the convergence of macro and micropolitics instantiates new debates about land ownership and territoriality that in turn in some sense alter the field of the political. This is what I mean by the macro always being infested by micropolitical effects.
This paradox is beautifully addressed in the Sydney molecule’s “Generating Thought Experiment” – one of the micropolitical interventions that was part of the SenseLab event,Society of Molecules. Taking as a conceptual point of departure Suely Rolnik and Felix Guattari’s Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Mat Wall Smith, Anna Munster, Andrew Murphie, Gillian Fuller and Lone Bertelsen take on the very idea of form and representation through the prism of “learning, research and thought across institutions.” One of the mandates of Society of Molecules was to try to think with, against and across institutions. The idea was to create techniques that might enable an undoing of the strict micro (ethico aesthetic) /macro (institution) perspective, since this strict dichotomy leaves us paralyzed in the face of institutions. To demonize the institution, as Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers point out, does not give us the tools with which to subvert it or to open it to its micropolitical potential.
“Generating Thought Experiment” is an instruction manual that invites us to learn/think/collaborate differently: “In the end it was decided that our ‘aesthetico political’ event would take the form of a micropolitical resistance to what Guattari may have called a ‘pseudo scientific’ ‘enslavement’ of thought and learning.” Seeking to go beyond “benchmark” culture – the endless measuring, aligning and evaluating that has become synonymous with academia – the Sydney molecule created a manual for thought generation through a fine tuned list of micro behaviours/contagious comportments. These micro behaviours include taking on someone else’s microbehaviours by differentially attuning to them, modulating the contagion that results from these new thought processes, thus creating “a patchwork existential territory with which you feel comfortable, but which gives you new powers.” The Sydney molecule’s instruction manual depends on a continuous flow between micro and macropolitical contexts and reminds us that the micro taken as didactic becomes a representation of itself (“don’t so much imitate it – certainly don’t mimic it”). It’s not so much that we must act micropolitically. It’s that we must invent across practices and behaviours.
Nasrin, when you ask about how micropolitical practices are necessary to a rearticulation of the political, quoting Guattari’s statement that links the micropolitical to the pragmatic, I think that what you are getting at is perhaps that we must start from the middle. It’s not enough, as you point out with the example of the military – to “reside” in a micropolitical territory (if there were such a thing). We must generate vocabularies across. This is what Stengers means, I think, when she talks about the necessity to create concepts that take off from a singular political event. She explains: “To paraphrase Deleuze paraphrasing Artaud, I try to think ‘before’ the uncountable victims of this mania of oppositions [such as the macro and micro], to create concepts that include protections, modes of deception that do not cease to return and that don’t pay attention to warnings.” For Stengers, the danger of the macro/micro opposition is its potential to regulate the passage between their inherent tendencies to reterritorialize. Despite Stengers’ unease around the concept of the micropolitical, I think she would agree that no matter what we call it, we must become sensitive to the modes of crossing that activate and emphasize certain political tendencies and in turn mobilize certain specific responses. Important is to become aware of how these transversal passages occur and where they might lead to. Stengers speaks of this in terms of 2 (his)stories [histoires]: “we are in suspense between two (his)stories.” The first history involves a mode of capture that insists on continuous evolution while it distributes both the possible and the impossible. We might call it capitalism. The second history is that of an intrusion or a counter capture. It cannot be anticipated nor prepared for; it cannot be desired in advance. It must be created.
NH: There are a lot of local activist groups here in Montreal (if that’s what you mean by locally) that do a lot of important and necessary work. Tadamon! is one example of this. A collective concerned with issues in the Middle East and right now focusing on issues concerning Palestine and Lebanon mostly, and also involved in the BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which is another very influential and important movement that has emerged as a response to resisting complicity with the Israeli occupation on an international level. Tadamon! has also been advocating for the Bil’in case here in Montreal. Bil’in is a village in the occupied West Bank that has been, for the last four years, organizing protests against the building of the wall across its lands. Also, the people of the town of Bil’in are suing two Quebecois companies that are involved in the building of settlements and other types of residential buildings on Palestinian land. Under the Geneva international convention it is deemed illegal to build on occupied land, and so for the first time we see a push toward holding foreign companies responsible for how they’re also aiding in the occupation. For me, the BDS movement and the Bil’in case trials are two important examples of how to think the local and the global together. What is important is not to think these separately – the local and global – but to know how to cut across them, which in these two examples we see taking place.
EM: I think the point you are making here about the local is very important. In the same way that it’s false to consider the micropolitical as the smaller version of the political, it is equally important, I think, to allow the local to proliferate. Within the vocabulary of the micropolitical, the local is the milieu. It is the force of the event around which wider concerns converge. In this regard, the local is both absolutely singular and infinitely expansive or serial. Singular in the sense of happening here and now under these specific set of conditions. Expansive in the sense that its effects can be felt in other subsequent and simultaneous localities. How do you activate this complexity of the local in your work?
NH: My own work is not specific to Palestine or Israel but to a politics of warfare and capitalism, and how these intersect in writing through the example of Palestine. I often ask myself how I can make these lines visible, depending on the context, asking how can these processes be connected—not superficially but rigorously as a way to think through the ways in which these practices (of occupation) have an effect elsewhere. Language is important here, as you mentioned, to create a vocabulary that expresses the complexity of what we’re dealing with, and communication is important, in terms of how we can make these thoughts graspable—Malcolm X is very inspiring in this regard.
As well as the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. Weizman recently wrote an article called Lawfare, which he wrote in March of 2009 shortly after the assault on Gaza in December 2008 January 2009. This piece illustrates how the micropolitical works macropolitically. And yes, as you mentioned earlier, micropolitics is not something to simply idealize or fetishize, and Deleuze and Guattari have warned us of this that micropolitics has the tendency to become microfascist. Weizman’s article brings this to light in some way.
According to Weizman, the attack on Gaza was not only the worst and most violent attack that Israel conducted on the Palestinian people, but it was also “one in which Israeli experts in international humanitarian law— the area of law that regulates the conduct of war—were most closely involved.”1 Weizman calls this lawfare, “the use of law as a weapon of war” as one American judge put it. Lawfare operated here at many different levels. First, the Israeli military was concerned with how to legalize large scale destruction so that they could conduct highly destructive military operations ”lawfully”—thus legalizing what would otherwise be illegal in the language of IHL, and avoiding accusations of war crimes. For example, “humanitarian munitions” was a term often used to describe the function of highly advanced military weaponry that they claimed had a smaller kill ratio— minor “collateral” damage. What is important to think about here is how language is being used and by whom. How few are few—and—does not every life count?
Second, Weizman also mentions in this article the “technologies of warning.” The Israeli military dropped leaflets warning Gazans to leave or evacuate (we saw this image often in the news). The Israeli army used this technique in the assault on Lebanon (2006) as well but in Gaza somethingdifferent happened. Not only did the dropping of the leaflets serve to warn people to evacuate – as it had in the past. Now, the leaflets also had a legal component: if the civilians chose not to evacuate they were considered to have opted for the fight. To stay behind, to go back to your house to protect it, meant, according to an international law division officer, that you were a “legitimate target.” In this case, lawfare doesn’t humanize war, as these experts claim it does (whatever this means anyway), but proliferates and justifies it. The range of violence and destruction becomes elastic in the context of how law, in this case, becomes malleable.
I have a problem with the idea of everyone picking their own battleground and fighting for it. I think this is a strange approach—activism in fragments. I think what is important, and what I think is difficult and most challenging, is what Guattari adamantly calls for when he asks “how can we become united and increasingly different?”
What connects Palestine to Iraq, and how do we deal with that in relation to the shooting of Freddy Villanueva in Montreal North? I don’t mean we need to identify each solitary event and try to figure out some kind of common ground to connect the situations. I am suggesting that we need to work from a politics in context—we’re living in a time where we see the lines of connection between capitalism and warfare getting blurrier and blurrier—and to go back to Stengers’ concept of mesopolitics, we need to begin from the middle, and to rebegin, as Massumi also suggests. The building of walls is a good example of how events in one place are intrinsically connected to those in other places – how the local meets the global. Walls can be thought of as systems of thought/systems of power that are perpetually creating the “have nots” of the world, isolating and containing them. For example, the Israeli wall is not just a Palestinian problem. Of course, it’s specific to Palestine and the occupation, but it’s also proliferating similar initiatives all over the world. Mike Davis brings attention to this. New walls are being built in Saudi Arabia at its border with Yemen, in India at its border with Kashmir and Bangladesh, Bhutan is walling its border with India, Botswana is building an electric fence alongside its border with Zimbabwe, Costa Rica has walled its border at Penas Blancas, and then there is the long fence along the Mexican America border, some of it still unbuilt, but all of it very much a part of the Mexico America divide. The significance of this is overwhelming—not because it’s new, it’s not, we’ve seen this happen elsewhere and in different forms, with gated communities, and new urban development strategies—. But what is significant about this particular set of wall construction is that the walls are emerging from the context of the global economy of warfare and occupation.
|INFLeXions No. 3 (Oct. 2009)
Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics
History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics - an Interview with Isabelle Stengers