Particulate arising from study

New Publication: “Building Nature in Detroit”

I have a piece in the Spring 2016 edition of gnovis. It’s a short(ish) paper about  tracking green urban imaginaries and subtle racial exclusions in the enthusiasm for urban agriculture. You can check it out (open access!) here.

Comps List 2

Epistemologies of Technology List

Some preliminary questions: How do technological systems, machines, apparatuses, and practices shape the conditions of knowledge? How does the practice of thinking with and through technology structure a social world, yet differ from a classic SCOT approach to STS? Does this mechanic of worldmaking predispose one to potentially problematic forms of techno-political thinking?

STS Methods

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (selections)

Thomas P. Hughes, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture

Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (selections)

Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity

Harry Collins, Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (selections)


Feminist/Queer STS

Sandra Harding, Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway

Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology

Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.” Routledge, 1991.

Jeremy Cohen and Lowell Duckert, eds. Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire

Alandra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination

Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice

Ruth Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave


History of Technology

Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump:Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (2010): 561–77.

Bowker and Starr, Sorting things out. The politics of taxonomy & ontologies

James Beniger, The Control Revolution

Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network

Donald McKenzie, The Social Shaping of Technology

Thierry Bardini, Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing

Nikolai Krementsov. A Martian Stranded on Earth: Alexander Bogdanov, Blood Transfusions, and Proletarian Science. (e-book)



Bernard Siegert, Cultural Techniques

EP Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present 38 (Dec 1967): 56-97.

Ulrich Beck, “Risk society and the Provident State.” In Risk, Environment & Modernity: Towards a New Ecology. Ed. Scott Lash, Bronislaw Szarzynski, and Brian Wynne: 27-43.. Sage, 1996.

Donald McKenzie, ”Nuclear Missile Testing and the Social Construction of Accuracy.” In The Science Studies Reader ed. Mario Bagioli 342-357.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population

Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics

Janet Vertesi, Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars

Langdon Winner. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 109: 121-136.

Madeleine Akrich, “The De-Scription of Technical Objects.” In Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA:MIT 2000.

Bruno Latour, “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.”

Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future

Chandra Mukerji, Territorial Ambitions of the Gardens of Versailles

Comps List 1 Complete!

(And provided below for your intellectual curiosity)


Mediating Environment; Thinking Ecologies Reading List

Given the political and ecological challenge of global warming, practices of mapping, understanding, and acting on the environment are called both for and on with ever greater urgency. Doing so, however, requires the practice–and tacit theorization of–media and scale in equal measure. It is thus important to pause and consider: how do media facilitate ecological, trans-scalar relations? What are its dominant modes, what other modes might be proposed?

Background- History of Nature

Donald Worster. Nature’s Economy

Frederick Buell. From Apocalypse to Way of Life

Alfred Schmidt. The Concept of Nature in Marx

Timothy Choy. Ecologies of Comparison (ebook)

Carolyn Merchant, Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution (2016)


Background- Theories of Nature

Bruno Latour. Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy (ebook)

Donna Haraway. When Species Meet

Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human. (chapter selections)

Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway.


Networks and Scales

Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World

Donella H. Meadows (2008) Thinking in Systems – A primer (Earthscan)

Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch

Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter” Political Theory (32) 3: 347-372.

Paul N. Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa et al. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003).

Lisa Parks, “Earth Observation and Signal Territories: Studying U.S. Broadcast Infrastructure through Historical Network Maps, Google Earth, and Fieldwork.” Canadian Journal of Communication vol 38 no. 3 (2013):

Myra J. Hird. ‘Indifferent Globality’ Theory, Culture and Society, 2010, 27 (2-3), 54-72.

Sallie Marston, John Paul Jones, and Keith Woodward. “Human geography without scale.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 30: 416–432

Arturo Escobar, “The ‘ontological turn’ in social theory: A Commentary on ‘Human geography without scale’, by Sallie Marston, John Paul Jones II and Keith Woodward.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 32: 106–111

Andrew E. G. Jonas. “Pro scale: further reflections on the ‘scale debate’ in human geography.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 31 (2006): 399–406.

Sayre, Nathan F., and Alan Di Vittorio. “Scale.” In Robert Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, eds. The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier, 2009.

Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker, eds. Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment (2016). (Selections – particularly Alenda Chang and Erica Robles-Anderson’s pieces).

Zach Horton, “Collapsing Scale: Nanotechnology and Geoengineering as Speculative Media” in Shaping Emerging Technologies: Governance, Innovation, Discourse.  Edited by Kornelia Konrad, Christopher Coenen, Anne Dijkstra, Colin Milburn and Harro van Lente, IOS Press / AKA, Berlin, 2013


Mediated Epistemologies of the Environment

Melody Jue, “Vampire Squid Media.” Grey Room

John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Cloud

Sean Cubitt. “The Information Environment.” In Ulrik Ekman; Jay David Bolter; Lily Diaz; Morten Sondergaard and Maria Engberg, eds. Ubiquitous Computing, Complexity and Culture. New York: Routledge (2016): 215-225.

Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Alenda Chang, “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences vol. 19, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2011): 57-84.

Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies

Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self.

Ursula Heise, “Unnatural Ecologies: The Metaphor of the Environment in Media Theory”

Edwards, Paul N. A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

Katherine Hayles. “Simulated Nature and Natural Simulations: Rethinking the Relation between Beholder and the World.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature ed. William Cronon. New York: WW Norton & Co, 1996.


The Technoscene & Critiques of Sustainability

Stacy Alaimo, “Sustainable this, sustainable that.”

Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Kundis Craig, “The End of Sustainability.” Society & Natural Resources.

C.S. Holling, 1973. “Resilience and stability of ecological systems.”Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics Vol 4 :1-23.

Catherine Yusoff. “Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene.” Theory, Culture & Society vol. 33, (2): 3-28.

Jussi Parikka. Geology of Media

Alf Hornborg. “The Political Ecology of the Technocene: Uncovering Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System.” In The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch. 2015: 57-69

Petrocultures Research Group, After Oil

Catherine Yusoff. “The geoengine: geoengineering and the geopolitics of planetary modification.” Environment and Planning vol. 45, (12) 2799-2808.

New Article Out in Disability Studies Quarterly

DSQ published one of my articles recently: “Errant Bodies: Relational Aesthetics, Digital Communication, and the Autistic Analogy.” In it I muse about the abelist underpinnings of relational aesthetics and an awful lot of popular media criticism.

Also included: a compassionate, but critical reading of all that feminist literature about embodiment and VR; a deep look at some digital performance art works; and what to do about the frequent conflation of autistics and users of x, y, z technology.

Hope you enjoy!

Tripping Over Our Bootstraps @ Model View Culture

“El Hombre en la encrucijada” Diego Rivera (1934), CC-BY Xenophon

“El Hombre en la encrucijada” Diego Rivera (1934), CC-BY Xenophon

I’ve got some writing in Model View Culture’s 22nd issue concerning the politics of liberational technology, open source, and bootstrapping. Check it out here:


“Without Mediation, No Access” – An Inquiry Into [INQ]

Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns ([2012] 2013) is a very peculiar volume, not only in its expansive aims and conversational style, but notably in its significant modifications and proposed new directions to the technology of the book. Apprehending this work is thus a task that cannot be limited to mere analysis of content and concept, but must also address the formal features of his writing and the accompanying AIME digital humanities project. Consequently, accounting for the theory and extended practice at play requires an equal commitment to the internal language of Latour’s inquiry and the established analytics of media studies. These translations and crossings enable the reader to assess the networked book in terms of its internal commitments and its contrasts to the modes of inquiry that precede it. Ultimately, for all of Latour’s passionate defense of collective gatherings and renewed negotiations, the media politics of AIME often serve to the detriment of the diplomatic ethos Latour seeks to foster. Inquiry, in the end, exceeds AIME, and the institutionalization of knowledge on a digital platform does not do to justice to its modes and values.

The strangeness of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence begins in its hardcopy form, the point of access at which most readers will, out of habit, begin. The reader is immediately confronted with the unusual presence of a user manual, outlining several typographic techniques that signal further content available on the “research apparatus” and “laboratory” of modesofexistence.org.[1] A timeline is also given, along with a solicitation to contribute to the larger project. The book’s considerable scope, after all, requires the reader’s participation; the cataloging and cross-referencing of all the modes, institutions, and ontologies of the contemporary West is a task that hopelessly outmatches the author by repeated self-admission.[2] The hopes for the book itself, therefore, are modest: “even if the book holds up by itself, it only really makes sense through the proofs and developments that will test it on the site.”[3]

Moving into the book proper, the reader encounters the peculiar texture and pace of its  text. Chapters are divided into multiple subtitles, whose logic flows more or less sensibly when collected together in the table of contents or the title page of each section, but induce a fair measure of discordance when reencountered as indented interruptions within the body of the text itself. These subtitles, many of which are reduced to sentence fragments, disturb the continuity of the reader’s passage through the chapter’s contents, inculcating an awareness of two summaries of different lengths running in parallel over the same pages.[4] The AIME team describes these interventions in terms of ease, such that they “allow one to get an overview of the book in a few minutes.”[5] However, the affordances of the fragments are such that they also situate one’s reading firmly within the schedule of another’s, punctuating the text with reminders of an ongoing conversation and perhaps a sense of external urgency.

This defamiliarization of the habits of reading is continued in the typographic symbols for mediated content. Key terms, particularly as they relate to Latour’s prior scholarship, are represented in bold, capitalized letters to signal that their definitions can be found on the AIME website.[6] While the meaning of these terms is often adequately signaled within Latour’s accessible prose, the reference to an exterior, legitimated definition, in addition to the visual presence of the text on the page, gives these words considerable weight. Such conventions are continued in the text’s most notable feature: that of the italicized and abbreviated modes, rendered as [REP], [REF], [NET], etc. Like the key terms, these words announce themselves with an insistent authority, grabbing the tired reader’s eye with their substantive brevity. The shortening of the modes into three-letter signifiers is surely a well-calculated gesture, for it flattens the differences in the structural and connotative valences of each word into new formal equivalence.[7] This newfound visual compatibility complements the repeated work of crossings that Latour orchestrates throughout the text, such that [REF • ATT] is more immediately thinkable than the complicated intersection of modes of references and modes of attachments. The bold text, whether in reference to modes or definitions, operates more as a summons than an open provocation.

There is also a significant factor of defamiliarization at play in the abbreviations. Although Latour’s definition of the essence of modes can be quite narrow and exclusionary at times, he persists in referring to each mode under its larger categorical name. [REL], for example, is defined in terms of restorative interpersonal speech acts and neighborly communities rather than religious transcendence or divinely-ordained morality.[8][REL]”, therefore, is given the difficult task of denotating only what Latour intends to make of religion, and it is here that the defamiliarization of its writing serves to set the phrase apart from its prior referent. However, given that the specificity of [REL] is unpacked solely within its given chapter, one is led to wonder if [REL] nevertheless connotes much more than this narrow pasture. Perhaps the strategic alienation of the modes’ lexicographic appearance works both to delimit and admit widely. One is left never quite certain about what [REL] refers to, and can only conclude that it is a particularly abundant index.

Such considerations of ease and association are calculated on the part of Latour, who very much wants his readers to interact with the website and potentially become co-researchers with the AIME project. The platform itself is divided in two, comprised of the augmented book and an expanded chart of the possible crossings of all of Latour’s modes. The latter takes the form of an interactive diagram, drawing references from the former, while the virtual text itself is more centrally organized into a four-part columnar division of t (the original text), v (definitions of key terms), d (documentation to further support the text’s contents), and c (contributions from co-researchers, including critique). The mystificatory powers of abbreviation again plays a strategic role here, for rather than clearly organizing the data relationally, the user of the website is more immediately confronted by a vast array of content and associations without a clear trajectory between headings and categories. Such an interface invites dérive, and the website’s principle value first appears to be that of aimless exploration rather than participatory research.

The appearance of an abundant crowd of material on AIME is not far from Latour’s more figurative goal for the project: to assemble a great many entities and analysts in a global agora, affording a more holistic account of contemporary existence and its multiple logics and values.[9] Explicitly opposed to the fundamentalism of critique and the inconsistencies of the Moderns, Latour notes that “if it is a question of ecologizing and no longer of modernizing, it may become possible to bring a larger number of values into cohabitation within a somewhat richer ecosystem.”[10] The composition and modes of entry into this ecosystem, however, are unclear. Following Latour’s own methods, one is inspired to ask: What sort of ecology does AIME engender and is it well constructed for the task at hand?

In order to assess the specific actions and values of the AIME Project, it is necessary to continue the analysis of textual difference initiated above. Mobilizing Latour’s example [LAT], while taking a few privileges with its specificity, one could situate such an analysis against the tracing of the mode of existence practiced by general scholarly inquiry [INQ], through the derivations evident in the crossing of [INQ • LAT]. Freely employing Latour’s terms, if a little roughly, helps us situate the braiding and unbraiding of his values and his practices, all while endeavoring to maintain the same spirit of charitable diplomacy that founds his text. While neither [INQ] nor [LAT] is quite grandiose enough to constitute its own mode of existence proper, borrowing the techniques of modes and their analysis nevertheless proves to be productive, even within this highly specific locality.

One might then begin by asserting the trajectories of the quasi-modes. [INQ], as practiced in the West over the past few centuries, is a particular case of the [REP • REF] crossing, resulting in the maintenance and rearrangement of what one might describe as the beings of knowledge. Reference, taken quite literally in the sense of citation, founds and sustains a competitive ecology of knowledge workers and ideas. The production of new scholarly work and names [REP] is negotiated only in conversation with the old, as contemporary academia continues to situate itself in relation to prior lineages of thought and persons [REF]. Scholars and theories are sustained through their references, whether under the veil of peer review or in the light of their own citations. Reference maintains the relevance and vitality of beings of knowledge (even perversely through the repeated assassination of strawmen and other intellectual villains). In this way, indifference cuts deeper than hate within [INQ].

Moreover, for all a graduate student’s grumblings about the circuitous nature of this referencing, nothing has been so productive to the continued generation of [INQ], at least in terms of quantity. Truly new ideas may be exceedingly rare, but the continued rise and fall of methods and vogue philosophers is more than enough to keep the presses running. To speak into the air without a care for what is already written in books is largely to speak alone. In this way, [REF] is both the felicity condition of [INQ] and the means of its reproduction. The only cardinal sin of knowledge would be to censor its contents or otherwise presume the book to be preemptively closed [INQ • DC].

A crude assessment of the volume of paper spent on footnotes and bibliographies immediately alerts the reader to the importance of [INQ]’s [REP • REF] chain and all its material instauration. From the unread but tactically cited volumes at the end of a dissertation bibliography to furtive aides hidden in the well-thumbed margins of a library book, the physical arrangement of reference in academic media is largely designed to support the protocols and felicities of reference. To begin [INQ] is to find a path to follow, only to later strategically lose it before it reaches the predestined end. This is accomplished by fishing in endnotes for half-digested breadcrumbs the author has charitably left in view, or by summoning a jury of texts by keyword search to bear witness to the state of a given question in a particular field. The practices of [INQ] prove the motif of the solitary philosopher to be a fiction. This broody character is at the very least surrounded by books, whose material affordances and network of references serve to mediate and co-create the volumes to follow.

[LAT], by contrast, puts its faith in the productive powers of [NET • ORG], both literally as an unintended pun on the Internet and narrowly in terms of the networked assembly of co-researchers AIME means to mobilize around the project. In eschewing the traditional [REP • REF] chain by omitting a reference section within the hard copy of the book, [LAT] interrupts and displaces the traditional practices of [INQ]. Readers must reference the website to find the figures with whom Latour is in conversation, and even these are sparser and more generally noted that might be typical even for a late-career scholar.[11] One might, at this point, take the augmented book to be resultantly superior to the hard copy as its contents are vaster and more fleshed out than its paper object, while an appeal can certainly also be made to student thrift in so far as it is freely accessible to those with an Internet connection. However, the augmented book is unpaginated, such that scholars will not be able to cite Latour more generously than he has cited his own interlocutors—a problem if one is to establish one’s legitimacy within the conventional circulations of [INQ]. Scrolling through text at length, moreover, is a cumbersome task for the divisions between t, v, d, and c partition a rather ungenerous amount of space for the writing in question. One is constantly distracted by the v, d, and c fields populating with material as one scrolls down t. Again, the webdesign’s affordances serve to solicit associations of breadth more than depth.

What then would the felicity conditions of [LAT] be? Like other network forums on the Internet, the success of the platform depends not so much on its external references, but on the content generated within its borders.  In this respect, AIME’s intended effect may be closer to institution building in practice than knowledge production in the critical tradition. This itself is wholly consistent with Latour’s avowed stance in the text, although it may underplay the politics and exclusions of such gestures.[12]

[NET], as Latour notes, does not in itself adequately qualify values within the associations it traces, even if they are meta-reflections on a digital network.[13] Fortunately for this inquiry, however, Latour himself offers many judgments on the comparative merit of different forms of digital media throughout the text. In his ongoing love of analogy, bad habits are likened to email spam[14] and the transition from modernity to ecology is likened to a change in operating systems.[15] Most obviously, the ruinous mode [DC] takes is appellation from “double click,” insinuating that the mouse and windows navigation of the majority of computer interfaces problematically conceals the mediating powers of the code and technological devices within.[16] The real sin of [DC], and where it departs from [HAB], is that this improper concealment prevents the resuscitation of a chain gone awry; “manual restart” is no longer possible.[17] A good [NET • ORG], like a good form of mediation, would effectively wire its participants around critical problems without preventing them from getting under the hood or even, perhaps, reorienting the collective entirely. [LAT], therefore, needs both participants and structures conducive to a particular form of mediation, one with the powers of [MET].

As with the other modes of existence, Latour characterizes mediators as essential co-constructors of entities that pass through points of hiatus (which is to say virtually all entities, including the ones that [DC] endeavors to simplify).  Breaking from crude social constructivism, Latour describes the process of these mediators under the name of “instauration,” composed of a three-part set of conditions that describe the mechanisms of co-creation. Firstly, the authorship of an action must be ambiguously distributed, such that the ordering of call and response become impossible to precisely define.[18] Secondly, the direction of this mutual activity must also be confused, such that both quasi-subject and quasi-object are affected by the process.[19] Finally, one must be able to ultimately make judgments on the quality of the construction within a given situation.[20]

Taken as a whole, instauration finds many initial points of accord with [LAT] and the mediations of AIME. Latour’s authorship could be seen to exist as both a precondition and preemptive point in the collaboration he seeks with his audience-cum-co-researchers. His writing style and interface design draw participants into the institution he is building for his work, with the frequent invitation to challenge his premises and to expand the scope and depth of the project, even as these very qualities are preemptively bent around this anticipated participation. What remains to be seen, however, is that the institution of AIME is adequate to the challenge of full instauration. Or, as Latour puts, “the act of instauration has to provide the opportunity to encounter beings capable of worrying you.”[21] Does AIME follow through on this point?

Mediation, as Latour describes in the introduction to the book, is largely a question of diplomatic representation.[22] It is thus not without some humor that the digital moderators of AIME are called Mediators,[23] giving a rather amusing spin to Latour’s resolute assertion in the book: “Without mediation, no access.”[24] The Mediator’s function is to review and publish user contributions to the site, possibly moving content from the c to d sections as they see fit. Their role within [LAT] is to allow felicitous alterations to the mode and also, one presumes, to keep the rabble out. Mediators are thus put in the somewhat contradictory position of soliciting transformation and prohibiting upheaval. This itself is a problem quite germane to [INQ], though in this case it is unusually placed on the shoulders of the inert few who act as gatekeepers but never masons to the institution under construction.

Even for the few that pass through the Mediator’s hiatus, [LAT] demands further mediation and trials before an idea can become stabilized. Larger questions of legitimacy and amendment are to be handled by a different class of worker, the Negotiators, who met in 2014 to discuss the respective merits of contentious user content[25] and major changes to Latour’s framework.[26] The sum of these conversations were brought to a head within several capstone conferences in July 2014 whose participants bore the title “Diplomats of Gaia.”[27] The results, however, have been fairly inconclusive. Diplomatic mediation has proven difficult from Latour’s point of view, as the AIME team has had to continually educate its critical interlocutors on the sum of what is meant by a mode of existence or the comportment proper to diplomacy.[28] Even amongst contributors who have assimilated to the linguistic norms and culture of the project, there have been intransigent voices. The lack of a robust language for vast concepts such as the global as well as the under-defined role of the diplomat proved too great a challenge for Gaia’s envoys, who were ultimately unable to reach consensus on proposed revisions to the text.[29] Plans are still in the works to publish this material, even if not ratified, though the details are not yet public. The project’s funding was extended through June 2015, principally to address technical problems encountered with the website.[30] No further chains of mediations appear to be planned, though Latour continues to explore his ideas through complementary lecture series and an upcoming art exhibit.[31]

If the felicity condition of [LAT] was to mobilize a sympathetic network to populate AIME with transformative and stabilizing content, the project can be said to have fallen short. While there are several intriguing additional thoughts and case studies to be found on the website, the principle premise of the inquiry remains largely unchallenged and unexpanded. Only one additional mode of existence has been proposed—quite tellingly that of media ([MED])although its contents remain empty. This is perhaps because the project is both premised upon and undone by the hope of institutionalizing a form of mediation whose diplomacy defangs much of its free association and generative powers. Such an arrangement comes at the cost of [INQ]’s larger [REF • REP] chains, such that the beings of knowledge did not find [LAT]’s pastures to be particularly accommodating to their maintenance. In the mirror image to one of Latour’s prior musings on technological systems, [LAT] can be seen to fail because it did not believe in the autonomy of [INQ].[32] AIME s’aime trop.

Works Cited

AIME Project Team. “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project.” Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org.

———. “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools.” Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org.

———. “Diplomatic Writing Workshop, 21-25 July 2014, Paris – Schedule.” 21 July 2014. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org/diplomatic-writing-workshop-ateliers-decriture-diplomatique/.

———. “Final Evaluation Conference, 28-29 July 2014 – Video,” September 11, 2014. http://www.modesofexistence.org/final-evaluation-conference-28-29-july-2014-video-archive-conference-finale-devaluation-28-29-juillet-2014-video/.

———. “The AIME Project Continues,” September 27, 2014. http://www.modesofexistence.org/the-aime-project-continues-but-at-a-smaller-scale-le-projet-eme-continue/.

———. “The AIME Week Had Focused on 4 Themes from the Set of 80 Complaints Assembled before: How to Redescribe Nature, Politics, Religion, Economy.” Twitter, July 8, 2014. https://twitter.com/AIMEproject/statuses/493052532974182400.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013.

———. Aramis, or, The love of technology. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Originally published 1993.

Latour, Bruno, and Heather Davis. “The Amoderns: Thoughts on an Impossible Project.” Amodern February 2014. http://amodern.net/article/amoderns-impossible-project/.

[1] Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013), xx.

[2] Ibid., 476.

[3] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project,” accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org.

[4] For example: “which allow us to disamalgamate two distinct modes of existence” (73), “and they have particularly discriminating felicity conditions” (310), and “By returning to the experience of what sets the scripts in motion” (422).

[5] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools,” accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org.

[6] See, for example, BLACK BOX (214), COLLECTIVE (124), and BIFURCATION (288).

[7] With the exception, of course, of the devilish [DC], whose difference from the rest further emphasizes Latour’s judgment on its comparative utility.

[8] Latour, An Inquiry Into Modes Of Existence, 302, 322-323.

[9] Ibid., 483.

[10] Ibid., 11.

[11] Citations are typically given for whole books, without reference to specific page numbers. The only direct citation in the text is the curious inclusion Luke 6:42 on page 171.

[12] Latour, An inquiry into modes of existence, 261.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Ibid., 270.

[15] Ibid., 479.

[16] Ibid., 93.

[17] Ibid., 275.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid., 158.

[20] Ibid., 159.

[21] Ibid., 161. Emphasis in original.

[22] Ibid., 17.

[23] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools.”

[24] Latour, An inquiry into modes of existence, 78.

[25] These contributions are curiously categorized as complaints by the AIME Project Team: “The AIME Week Had Focused on 4 Themes from the Set of 80 Complaints Assembled before: How to Redescribe Nature, Politics, Religion, Economy.,” Twitter, (July 8, 2014), https://twitter.com/AIMEproject/statuses/493052532974182400.

[26] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project.”

[27] AIME Project Team, “Diplomatic Writing Workshop, 21-25 July 2014, Paris – Schedule,” 21 July 2014, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org/diplomatic-writing-workshop-ateliers-decriture-diplomatique/.

[28] Bruno Latour and Heather Davis, “The Amoderns: Thoughts on an Impossible Project,” Amodern February 2014, http://amodern.net/article/amoderns-impossible-project/.

[29] AIME Project Team, “Final Evaluation Conference, 28-29 July 2014 – Video,” September 11, 2014, http://www.modesofexistence.org/final-evaluation-conference-28-29-july-2014-video-archive-conference-finale-devaluation-28-29-juillet-2014-video/.

[30] AIME Project Team, “The AIME Project Continues,” September 27, 2014, http://www.modesofexistence.org/the-aime-project-continues-but-at-a-smaller-scale-le-projet-eme-continue/.

[31] See, for example, the 2015 conference Rencontre autour du Nomos de la Terre de Carl Schmitt at Science Po, Paris and Bruno Latour’s 2016 ‘Reset Modernity!’ exhibition at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

[32] See Bruno Latour, Aramis, or, The Love of Technology, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 292 for the counter example.

Identity Politics and French Feminism Today

In light of the changes to social and economic organization within Western capitalism after 1989, contemporary feminist thought has once again turned to reconsider the potential of identity politics, if not in quite so many words. In the face of mutable borders, bodies, and political means of representation, the processes of corporeal and discursive representations have become an acute area of focus for scholarly analysis and activist practice. Yet, just as theories of post-Fordism risk producing a certain nostalgia for the clearly defined boundaries of the factory, so too does the return to identity politics risk flirting with a regression into unsatisfactory (if better understood) strategies for contestation. However, as evidenced by recent works of European feminism, this revival of some of the principles of identity politics appears to be mobilized towards new ends, integrating both anti-essentialist and materialist critiques. The question this work asks, and that we must ask of this work in turn, could be phrased thus: when do flights of identity have liberatory potential and when do they merely rest complicit with the production of subjectivity under late capitalism?

Briefly charted, the history of identity politics has been tumultuous. Beginning with consciousness raising and the rallying cry of “the personal is political,” second wave feminist theory took as its foundational precept the organization and expression of a female identity. The centrality of the concept of woman, however, proved to be limiting in many respects as black feminist thinkers, Marxists feminists, and proponents of intersectionalism protested the hierarchy of oppression instantiated by white liberal feminism. Equally troubling was queer and post-structuralist challenges to the stability of female identity and practice. Following primarily in the wake of Judith Butler’s anti-essentialism, there has been a significant faction within feminist theory calling for the destruction or attenuation of the fixity of identity in both political positionality and personal practice. Curiously, and disturbingly, there has also been a parallel tendency within Western neoliberal politics towards the liquidation of fixed collectivities organized around class and community institutions (Boltanski & Chiapello 2007, 532). It is increasingly apparent that the flip side to the rigidity of identity politics may be a loss of solidarity, stability, and communal protections against precarity. As both flexible mutability and inflexible endurance have proven to be modes of potential collusion with structures of power, the tools of feminist thought would appear to be limited in their possible means of conceptualizing identity. It is at this moment that contemporary European feminist writing proves to be a dynamic site for re-apprehending the radical potential of identity, specifically in its changing embodiments.

The works of Catherine Malabou (2008, 2011, 2012), Virginie Despentes (2010), and Beatriz Preciado (2013) all characterize the mutability of bodies as the key site of both subject formation and contestation in late capitalism. Whether in the neuro-psychology of Malabou, the sexual labor of Despentes, or the hormonal experimentation of Preciado, these thinkers ground their discussions of power in the body, its cultural imperatives, and its material capacities for resistance and revolution. Writing after the propositions of Marxism and post-structuralism have long been debated, these texts thus offer a means to reflect on both the potential shortcomings and continuing promises of anti-capitalist and anti-essentialist critique. Taking Malabou, Despentes, and Preciado as significant sample of European feminist thought, one can find a shared concern for rematerializing identity and its instability along with a concomitant ethics of change in the face of labor practices that excessively privilege flexibility and immateriality. Change, in this framework, is best approached as an ambivalent horizon. The central problem in these texts can therefore be summarized thusly: how can bodily change be mobilized towards progressive ends when the incitements and tools of change are already pervasively present and antagonistically oriented against autonomous choice?

For all their shared concerns, however, this group of European feminist theorists is not a uniform one, and indeed the dissimilarities between these thinkers, whether overt or only visible in the nuances of their writing, provide an even more productive point of inquiry into the stakes and imperatives driving this work. In the two points of heightened accord across these texts, that of the materiality of the subject and the ethics of mutability, there is already a heterogenous community of opinion. This paper, in attending to these tensions, also points to a third: the larger omission of considerations of relationality in these theories of change. Reviewing, comparing, and contesting the three authors’ approaches to the revised politics of identity suggests that the potential for collective contestation is still endemic to the body and its community, even as its form becomes ever more malleable and difficult to define.

Of the texts considered, one of the most vivid features throughout the writing is the commitment to investigating identity, capitalism, and violence in terms of their material effects on the body. In Testo Junkie Preciado situates this gesture as part of a critical continuity with post-structuralist theory, arguing for the need to deepen analyses of production and subjectivity that stop “biopolitically at the belt” (37). Materializing theories of labor with an explicit focus on sexuality and gender creates a remobilization of Foucault, Butler, and Italian Marxism within what Preciado describes as the “pharmacopornographic regime” (33) and its “somatechnics” (78) of bodily-integrated control. Instead of restricting her/his analysis to the psychological, behavioral, or epistemological proclivities of the subject in its political formation, Preciado flattens semiotic, technological, and biological vectors of power into consumable “biocodes” of the body (55). In this framework, the manipulations of sexual acts and bodily metabolism, understood to be inseparably material and cultural at the same time, hold sway over the production of subjectivity and hegemonic capitalism (39). Freedom, borrowing from copyleft rhetoric and exemplified by Preciado’s self-experimentation with testosterone, thus becomes a matter of gaining control over the production and use of biocodes such that the bodily productions of identity becomes an open experiment without coercion (55).[1]

Obvious parallels between Preciado and Despentes writing are found in the centrality of sex work to the logics of late capitalism, the production of subjectivity, and the creation of gendered hierarchies of work and leisure. Despentes, however, concerns herself more explicitly with the lived experience of rape and sex work, turning to autobiographical reflection to situate her interventions into feminist theory and political policy within her book King Kong Theory. This focus on the body, rebelliously held apart from its cultural moors, allows Despentes to approach her experience with some remove from the political moralizing that so often accompanies such discussions (and, as Despentes argues, serves to weigh the interpretation of these events in favor of inequitable relations such as heterosexual marriage (55) and global capitalism (46)). Accordingly, over the course of her analysis she is able to articulate prostitution in terms of its working conditions (62) and femininity as that of a mode of dress (58) and of “bootlicking” (128). In weathering rape, and in moving between models of gendered performances and forms of bodily work in accordance with her economic and personal desires, Despentes positions her biography in opposition to both abolitionist feminism and familiar patriarchical exercises of power, arguing for the liberational possibilities of sexual self-determination (80). Female identity in this text is discussed primarily in terms of social prohibition and bodily discipline, along with the willful defiance of these injunctions through the body and the way it occupies space. Equal parts punk rock rebellion and socio-economic pragmatism, Despentes rallies for the liquefaction of moral prohibitions of gender and sex in order to facilitate greater female autonomy. Choice, and the freedom to use one’s body and to become what one wishes with one’s body, is the principle measure of authenticity within this particular strain of anti-abolitionist feminism.

A similar ethos can be found in Catherine Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity. Looking to the mechanics of self-formation on a neurological level, What Should We Do with Our Brain? answers the question in its title with the injunction to oppose passive flexibility with explosive plastic subject formations that defy the structures of power (78-79). As such the capacities of neurons to give and receive form supplies the basis for Malabou’s political and philosophical contestations (5). Just as Preciado and Despentes take the body and its sexual mutability as the paradigmatic model for capitalist production and resistance, Malabou sees a deeply neuronal logic to contemporary political and social organization (11), whereby “flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity—at once its mask, its diversion, and its confiscation” (12). Malabou’s specialized vocabulary, perhaps more clearly than the other two authors, makes apparent a distinction between authentic and coerced evolutions of identity. Self-determination, wrought by the body’s dissonant experience of its own materiality, is the liberational promise of plasticity and Malabou’s political imperative.

In comparing these approaches, all of which situate the analysis of flexibility within the materiality of the body, one clear correlation across the texts is the implicit or explicit individualism within this writing. For example, although Malabou addresses her audience in terms of the shared imperative of the plural second person, the nuances of her analysis of the brain are principally concerned with the self as the product of neurochemical synapses (57). Indeed, one of the primary arguments in her book is for a renewed appreciation of the centrality of the brain over the body and its environment (32), such that it is in varying degrees perceived as capable of taking on the heroic task of determining the subject autonomously (53). This model of self-creation, at times seemingly transcendent of material conditions outside the brain, comes to the fore in the dialectical encounter between the base level neuronal self of bodily homeostasis and the abstract mental self instantiated through the course of brain development. In theorizing how selves emerge and change over time, Malabou argues that identity is formed through an act of self-negation (72), and thus, “only in making explosives does life give shape to its own freedom, that is, turn away from pure genetic determinism” (73). She further notes the mechanisms of this action, whereby,

the plasticity of the self… implies a necessary split and the reach for an equilibrium between the preservation of constancy (or, basically, the autobiographical self) and the exposure of this constancy to accidents, to the outside, to otherness in general… What results is a tension born of the resistance that constancy and creation mutually oppose to each other. It is thus that every form carries within itself its own contradiction. And precisely this resistance makes transformation possible (71).

This is passage is a curious one in its simultaneous recognition of the necessity of an outside and its insistence that the self will sufficiently supply this force from within. The contradiction is explained to a degree by Malabou’s oppositional reading of Antonio R. Damasio’s model of brain development, though it is perhaps here that the material, scientific foundation of Malabou’s argument is at its weakest (72). More troubling for the political paralysis of identity politics, the external environment is significantly underplayed in favor of internalized Hegelian conflict. Bled of the specificity of bodily experience and difference save for the brief mention of resilient Romanian orphans (76), Malabou risks universalizing her model of subjectivity and thus limiting the potential for identity to found political resistance in the particular.

Despentes and Preciado’s texts also limit their potential through the privileged role of the individual. Unlike Malabou, however, this mode of individualism is deeply autobiographical, carrying forward the challenges of the politicization of personal experience that vexed second wave feminism, while also instantiating new difficulties in light of the contingent nature of bodily identity. For instance, although King Kong Theory opens with an invocation of solidarity (“I’m writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones” (7)), cracks in Despentes’ alliance appear throughout the text. Setting aside the question of whether or not the ugly ones wish to be written for, and under that appellation, Despentes’ strategic use of feminine conventions during her time as a sex worker would seem to at least momentarily exclude her from the category. There are also moments where her position as a white French citizen restrict the kinds of bodily experiences on which she can build a feminist politics. The devaluation of her sex work in Paris in light of a more competitive market (“Lots more girls, lots more white girls, from Eastern Europe, very pretty” (68)) suggests that part of her relative ease operating previously in Lyons stemmed from a position of privileged economic opportunity and the racial tastes of her clientele. As an individual, possessing a highly specific body in a market of inequitable corporeal goods, her experience and analysis does not encompass the sum of the differing political desires of her worker community. Still further instances in the text illustrate the limits of Despentes’ solidarity with those outside of her individual class position. Towards the end of the book in a spirited excoriation of male entitlement she writes, “when you defend your male prerogatives, you remind me of those servants at the five-star hotels who think they own the place, you’re just arrogant flunkies” (131). Read the other way, the right to occupy institutions of power in this analogy ironically does not seem to extend to working class hospitality labor. Although Despentes’ sex work was freely chosen, her freedoms were not wholly self-produced, and stem from prior structures of race, class, and immigration status.

Preciado her/himself is not unaware of the potential hazards of privileging the self within political analysis. In discussing the ethos of self-experimentation, s/he notes “romantic autoexperimentation carries the risk of individualism and depolitiziation” (351): two major transgressions within Preciado’s post-queer ethics. Nevertheless, there are moments in Testo Junkie in which s/he is caught between the specificity of her/his desire for bodily freedom and the difference between her/him and the community of cis-women that so often mediate this freedom in a quasi-dialectical fashion. Preciado frequently figures empowerment though the consumption of testosterone, whether on the part of retired sex workers seeking anonymity (290), as a politically subversive form of birth control (232), or as a tool for any cis-woman looking to enjoy some of the “political surplus value” of masculinity (237). And yet, this particular mode of transformation, escape, and appropriation may not be to everyone’s taste. Despentes, in what is likely a deliberate comment directed towards Preciado, writes: “wanting to be a man? I am better than that. I don’t give a damn about penises. Don’t give a damn about facial hair and testosterone—I possess all the courage and aggression I need” (132). The freedom to make oneself a new molecular identity, to “use the tools of the master” (Preciado, 372), may risk conforming too closely to the shape of hegemony, serving only to strengthen the force of its value relations.

These tensions concerning the specificity of the individual within the calculus of identity and its politics points to the second major intervention of the authors. Unlike the revolutionary fervor of Marxist, queer, and lesbian separatist texts, there seems to be an important ethical consideration at hand in these theories of differentialization. In all authors one finds moments of misrecognition: Despentes’ confusion at her feminized appearance (60) and slow reconciliation with her rape (39), Preciado’s disidentification with her/himself both on and off testosterone (397), and throughout Malabou’s later book Ontology of the Accident (2012) as it details the effects of “pathological plasticity” that befall victims of age, illness, or assault (6). Although these authors resist the now habitual citation of Levinas’ ethics of encounter with the Other, there is nevertheless an implicit concern for the just treatment and care for the strangers that appear unannounced in the mirror. Malabou discusses the need for emergency listening as a form of healing and rescue (2012, 49) while Preciado finds community in the unlikely depths of heteronormative nail salons (323-326). If, as s/he argues, “political subjectivity emerges precisely when the subject does not recognize itself in its representation” (397), then perhaps political possibilities and collectivities may be formed through an ethics of care towards the surprising forms of identities and embodiments that are produced through change, whether in the fragmentary bodies of others or in the shifting apparatuses of perception of one’s own body.

This ethics, however, is evidenced only in flashes throughout the texts which often do not wholly overcome the limitations of individualism that pose a continued challenge to the viability of their respective political aims. In her consideration of destructive plasticity Malabou is almost entirely focused on the affectively-deadened afterlife of the victim, to whom she attends only as an analyst of their texts and theorist of their condition. Rather than Despentes’ systematic analysis of the cause of gendered violence and the legitimacy of fantasies of revenge (115), Malabou’s book is haunted by a dark sense of fatalism, whereby brutality has no reason or means of contestation (60). In a different light, Preciado finds her/himself caught up in structures of violence as s/he is drawn towards the position and privileges of hegemonic masculinity on a visual and hormonal level. Her/his penultimate chapter ends with a reflection on the potential collusions created by this ascent to power. In examining the gendered becomings of pornographic labor described as the “Hairy Arm Complex,” Preciado pauses to wonder, “will I become a Hairy Arm if I keep on taking testosterone?” (408). The potential already seems present. Preciado’s flight from “woman” flirts with a subtle misogyny, however eroded the term may be after her/his efforts to dissolve the concept into the molecular. The analysis of female hormones in birthcontrol paints a stark picture of these androgens as a form of slavery (208), in part because of their role in the biopolitical control over women’s sexuality (205), and it part because of their associated drop in libido (210). Testosterone, conversely, is valued more highly for its potential to strengthen orgasm (222) and aggression (226), while containing the potential to equalize (and thereby destroy) gendered difference through the conversion of (all?) cis-women into technomales (234). This fantastical reduction of human difference into male uniformity values affects and bodies in a never-neutral fashion, leaving little room for women like Despentes who do not desire radical bodily change nor are willing to pay the physical costs of surgical and/or endrocinological modification. Also lost in this equation is the bodily experience of transwomen, whose fertility and bodily dimensions undergo a rather different process of embodying a new sex than transmen.

It seems that a key intervention to make into these texts would be to underscore the necessity of attending to relationality in questions of identities, bodies, and change. Unlike Malabou’s narrow portrait of neurological subjects or psychologically transformed victims, the impetus to change is formed in large part out of environments and communities, whether for good or for ill. Extending the subject’s contestation for authenticity out into the realm of shared ground enables a larger analysis of the agential factors that produce violence, a collective frontier for change, and a political emphasis behind the “we” of the community of brains. Similarly, Despentes’ call to action could be further strengthened by a consideration of the many different kinds of working bodies whose labor collectively constitutes the conditions for sex work. Individual choice does not belong solely to individuals, but is rather the product of the collective formation of society in which difference still matters even if it is not wholly disclosed. Finally, the radical potential of Preciado’s call to common ownership over biocodes is made all the more explicit when considering its effects relationally. Existing primarily through mutually-given structures of hierarchical worth, the open access of hormones, dress, and bodily practices stands to significantly alter the meaning of any given biocode when the relative position of the others falls out of alignment. Preciado’s vision of “technosomatic communism” (352), therefore, would constitute nothing less than the destruction of the present system of identity as a whole. This is, in many ways, the material equation for a long-held aspiration of queer theory and anti-essentialism. Its achievement, however, requires a collective rather than individual experiment and will surely devalue testosterone’s relational powers in turn.

These relations to the selves and others who have undergone change founds a new perspective on identity politics. Taking the body as a transformable medium and producer of identity, the task of feminist anti-capitalist politics follows as one not of positional certainty but of continued and surprising encounters with partial strangers. An emphasis on the material grounding of identity and the relational ethics of difference helps one discern the impetus behind change, its relative necessity, and the extent to which its production is one of contestation or complicity with structures of violence. Such a politics is one without transcendental foundation, in which the stakes and meaning of identity must be continuously and fractally apprehended. Rather than paralyzing identity politics in a sea of contingency, however, this continuous and relational encounter is itself the constitutive practice of a politics and an ethics appropriate to the contemporary climate of flexibility and change.

Works Cited

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliot. London and New York: Verso.

Despentes, Virginie. 2010. King Kong Theory. Translated by Stephanie Benson. New York: Feminist Press.

Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What Should We Do with Our Brain? Translated by Carolyn Shread. New York: Fordham University Press.

———. 2012. Ontology of the Accident : An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Translated by Sebastian Rand. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity.

Preciado, Beatriz. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Translated by Bruce Benderson. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY.


[1] At least at first. The narcotics metaphor complicates any narrative of straightforward liberation.

Video archive of TtW15

Theorizing the Web 2015’s archived streams are up! Our awesome disability and tech panel is , first video on this page:

Thanks again to the organizers and my A++ fellow panelists. What a great experience!

Clocks for Deep Time

The Long Now Foundation, founded by Whole Earth Catalog editor and technoculture entrepreneur Stewart Brand, seems on its face to be a working example of Jussi Parikka’s call to conceiving of time and space more deeply. Among its archival projects and TED-Talk like seminars, the foundation has conceived of a few strategies for how to conceptualize a future that extends for 10,000 years rather than merely that of the human lifespan or a market cycle. While many of its endeavors fall blatantly short of that goal, the organization’s central public face is that of a clock, to be built inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, which will (it is supposed) endure for ten millennia producing occasional and ever-changing music.

There’s something conceptually beautiful about the idea, even though I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a eulogy for the sixth mass extinction event or an apology to whatever form of life might emerge in that timescale to apprehend it. Perhaps its something about the remoteness of the desert that primes the mind to think of dirges, or it’s the fact that the clock is designed to run with the assistance of its human visitors, or without them. More fundamentally, it might be rigidity at which the clock is set to mark time that disturbs me, the holding of the second and the hour firmly in hand far in advance of what might well be the end of these concepts’ utility. The clock thus seems to embody an optimism for the conditions of the present that implicitly limits the imagination. Deep time isn’t clock time, at least not in the sense of the steadily ticking second hand.

I wonder if a different clock, the doomsday clock that came out of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, might provide the better tool with which to think and act. Maintained since 1947 by a consortium of scientists, the clock advances and retreats relative to midnight. Time here is plastic and responsive, equally full of a vast past and a dire present. This equation seems to me to balance the tension between the unthinkable scales of human history and the decisive capacities of present action. Perhaps we need a deep time with a deadline.

Adorno and the Vitality of Critique

The closing paragraph of Theodore Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” is a rousing one:

“But freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom in the same. The way in which the young girl accepts and performs the obligatory date, the tone of voice used on the telephone and in the most intimate situations, the choice of words in conversation, indeed, the whole inner life compartmentalized according to the categories of vulgarized depth psychology, bears witness to the attempt to turn oneself into an apparatus meeting the requirements of success, an apparatus which, even in its unconscious impulses, conforms to the model presented by the culture industry. The most intimate reactions of the idea of anything peculiar to them survives only in extreme abstraction: personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions. That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.”

-pages 135-136, Jephcott edition

While I was initially enchanted by this passage due to the caustic pleasure of Adorno’s sweet, sweet burns, what’s making me linger here a little longer is the rich intellectual lineage buried in this tiny paragraph. Walter Benjamin’s influence is immediately felt in Adorno’s discussion of technically-conditioned route behaviours and affects, developed throughout the essay and bearing witness to Adorno’s long role as correspondent, mentor, and failed savior of the ill-fated German writer. After having completed a seminar devoted exclusively to Benjamin’s fragmentary works the semester prior, it was charming to encounter the immediate legacy of Mr. Bungle himself, enduring (if uncredited) in the work of others in the decade following his suicide.

Similarly, just as one extends into the past to contextualize the excerpt, the lineage of this work extends forward as well, as the parts about “the apparatus” and the pervasive influence of disciplinary discursive surely bring Michel Foucault to mind. The philosopher’s archaeological method, a fair bit more rigorous than Adorno’s uncompromising critique, brings the depth of history to the project initiated here, while Adorno in turn might be seen to make Foucault’s Marxist sympathies a fair bit more explicit than often apprehended by the casual reader. While Adorno’s notorious hatred for jazz seems to be happily disabused in every re-reading of this essay in seminars around the world, I don’t think we often pause to note the continued legacy of his thought in some of the most complex Leftist thinkers. There’s a power, perhaps a reassurance, in watching ideas endure and transform both themselves and the field open to their readers.

This last point brings me more directly to the charge of the text itself: the problem of Adorno’s present–one that is still an under-acknowledged challenge of politics and theory today. How does one make interventions, or think even subversive thoughts, when the ideological language of politics is nullified and political choice is largely a dead end? This darkly deterministic note on which Adorno ends his work is often a bit too grim for the student to bear gladly. The usual platitudes that Adorno does not sufficiently allow for agency certainly ring true, as do accusations of a stifling sense of nihilism if one is to take this text as inert doctrine. Yet, for all the temperance of absolutes that are called for here, to what extent do these accusations rise above the mere reaction to an unfortunate truth?

While reading this text certainly impressed upon me the necessity of Culture Studies’ intervention into theoverly simplistic or classed and raced handling of culture by the Frankfurt School, I still see enormous value in seriously taking up the question Adorno poses for the scholar, even or especially in the unforgiving light of such negativity. I’m reminded of Karen Barad’s assertion that agency is something that one does, not something that one has. Accordingly, it strikes me that the Adorno’s assessment of the Culture Industry (and so much of it resonates with contemporary media politics and political discourse!) illustrates that critical thought faces a momentous challenge. Critique is not merely given, its very action is a performative one. Like Searle’s early thinking on the term, speaking against capitalism requires one to create a language and a culture in which this thought can come into being. More than just Marx’s affirmation of a ruthless critique of everything existing, critique (if it is to be effectual, if it is not simply to be a foregone and illusory choice in a marketplace of ideas) requires creation. Perhaps this is the comfort and energy I take in the task of tracing the intellectual histories that run through this text; they are a testament to the capacities of thought to continually change the conditions of knowledge they are describing.