Linda Brigham reviews Incorporations, the most recent collection from Zone Books.
The sixth in MIT’s Zone series, Incorporations, like so many good pomo anthologies, radiates political ambivalence, an amalgem of guilt and intellectual self-congratulation. It is obscurely troubling at first glance: a fat, jolly anthology with a cover that looks like Christmas, it simultaneously solicits the well-tempered coffee-table, the socially conscientious utopian, and the mission-driven media theorist, without entirely submitting to any of them, or resolving their conflicts. The volume shrugs off readerly grind with a trendy aesthetic, and its orderly disorder offers a visionary tune-up for miseries, pleasures, identifications, and fears, and it blissfully choreographs the “end of the book” with its pointed challenges to the written; interruptions, superscriptions, sidebars and palimpsests. Further engagement fails to end this self-division. Upon actual reading, one finds that the essays, like scholarly work generally, still demand the sober attention to sequential argumentation that defines written culture against its visual and electronic competition. Nonetheless, the work sidesteps charges of form/content hypocrisy, because the overwhelmingly posthumanist claims in the majority of the essays arguably must accompany media revolution; posthumanism even constitutes the precondition for media revolution. But we seem forever meeting preconditions for revolution, an eternal preparation that lasts at least until retirement. And what kind of progress does media revolution embody?
Not that time itself should escape interrogation. Categories of many sorts, but first of all temporal categories, get a lot of flak in the collection, both in its constituent essays and in the organization of the book as a whole. In their introduction, editors Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter explain that their strategy of compilation reflected classification of material along “two axes” of the contemporary and the past, with the “simultaneous elaboration” of these axes: a scaffolding of history followed up by its elimination; a trap door effect; an erasure of the information necessary to a certain production. “History” remains an issue in the collection as the subject of several essays on technology, on bodily styles; it remains in the dates, included in the titles, to early twentieth century essays reprinted in the volume. But none of this history makes it to the level of a chronology of organization, and immediate contexts often work towards the essays’ deliberate dehistoricization. Victor Tausk’s “Influencing Machine,” a 1919 description of a certain type of schizophrenic manifestation - patients who fancy a complex and powerful machine that controls their thoughts and behavior - is pressed into service against its will as a diagnosis of a contemporary societal condition when followed up by Judith Barry’s “Chronology of Remote Selling,” a progress of technological surveillance from nineteenth-century balloons to SDI and satellite broadcasts of scenes from the Gulf War.
Clearly, this is not the result of a “disregard” for history (Crary’s own work is historical), but serves the purpose of the collection’s thesis concerning life itself: life “as a complex, labile overtone structure, neither dependant upon, nor reducible to, an organic substrate or historical object - in short, to what contemporary habit too knowingly calls ‘the body.’” And when you really think about it, the project of the volume, life, secretes time, and time - as periodicity, pulse, oscillation, a consciousness of return to origin - splicing eternity into paradoxes of identity and difference. Yet we cannot forget that this mandala is for sale, itself perpetuating a circuit of profit. Like Time-Life, the great conglomerate of a less self-conscious intelligentsia, Kwinter and Crary’s time/life benefit from the merger; a liquification of fixed capital in both time and life render them more fit for a post-fordist world, where the question of who owns this means of reproduction barely shadows the enterprise.
This is, however, a dauntingly intelligent collection. Even though the majority of essays either suggest benefits from contemporary developments in technology and heavily theoretical border disciplines (biopsychiatry, cognitive biology and neurology, chaos theory, and so forth) or chip away at assumptions that presumably thwart, stifle, or blind our receptivity to new visions, the reader is reminded, on occasion, that the planet has become “a living hell for over three quarters of its population,” in the words of Felix Guattari. In fact, Guattari’s essay, “Regimes, Pathways, Subjects,” opening the volume, juxtaposes this sober acknowledgement of global misery with the utopian hope that a rebuilt subjectivity resulting from “planetary computerization” might transform hell into “a universe of creative enchantments.” Guattari’s terminal dreams, supplemented by other essays like Allucquere Roseanne Stone’s “Virtual Systems,” present a simultaneous deterritorialization of class markers, invisible at the terminal, and a reintroduction of what Guattari calls the “singular” - “an ethic of finitude that is all the more demanding of individuals and social entities, because its imperatives are not founded on transcendent principles.” Stone speculates that cyberspace, by decoupling the socially categorized body (gender, class, attractiveness, health) from the mere address that locates a user on the net, both broadens and complicates the possibilities of access to subjecthood, rendering pomo subject space the terrain of a premodern Trickster. For Stone, such access might offer “a variety of complex and ingenious strategies for survival in what many critics term the urban wasteland;” - Stone’s “survival,” though, is markedly congruent with Toffler-Gingrich’s “Third Wave,” an escape from the urban masses who fail to constitute “people.”
Despite the high-tech look, though, most of the essays, both affirmative and critical, barely mention the contested terrain of the Net. Like the other volumes in the Zone series, Incorporations sacrifices the topical for its underlying abstract, in this case, the basic component of humanism: the category of the individual. The most philosophical essay of this sort is by Gilbert Simondon, a French philosopher of science, lamentably little of whose work has been translated into English. “The Genesis of the Individual” elaborates the thesis that organic life, crystals, and a variety of molecules achieve individuation through a process of “falling out of step with themselves,” and so achieving a reflexive polymorphic hybridity, maintaining a differentiated difference from its environment - a condition Simondon labels “metastable equilibrium.” Neither substances nor enghosted corporeal shells, “individual” refers to a certain dynamical status, a non-self-equivalence. Simondon points to a new taxonomy that no longer distinguishes life from non-life according to the great divide of organic and inorganic, or based on a particular genetic structure of reproduction; instead, the new order depends on processes that support common ground for both organic and inorganic phenomena. This fundamental posthumanist recategorization governs the logic of several essays, including Dorion Sagan’s “Metametazoa: Biology and Multiplicity” on the hybrid origins of nucleated cells, and Manuel DeLanda’s “Nonorganic Life” with its discussion of chaos phenomena like Ilya Prigogine’s chemical clocks, whose oscillating regularity define a kind of metastable equilibrium.
The reconstruction of individuality as a process only secondarily vital goes hand in hand with a reconstruction of the relationship between things and their environments, blended ontologically in Peter Eisenmann’s “Unfolding Events,” which proposes the substitution of the term “event” for “object.” Essays on perception by Francisco Varela, Leif H. Finkel, and Francois Dagognet further undermine the common sense epistemological distinction of subject and object by a reverse idealism: “objects” result not from mentalistic Kantian categories, but from the heterogeneous character of body: the subject is a derivative of the structures of its corporeal subsytems.
Several essays dispute the overall posthumanist trend, though more often in a reactionary rather than a productively interrogatory way. Technophobia grips John O’Neil’s portrayal of contemporary society’s bad love of machines; Paul Virlio describes the movie Aliens as glorifying a monumental, xenophobic war machine; and Paul Rogers points out that the clean media technology lending a hygienic sheen to transmission of the Gulf War concealed the fact that contemporary conventional combat, far from “surgical,” is a brutally amplified killing machine. J.G. Ballard, in the volume’s most dyspeptic entry, provides grouchy definitions from symptomatic emblems of techno-modernity; particularly hard-hit here are technologies of reproduction: the pill is “Nature’s one step back in order to take two steps forward, presumably into the more potent evolutionary possibilities of wholly conceptualized sex;” abortion is “Do-it-yourself genocide.” Finally, in a scary re-narration of willfully neglected biohazards shrouding the Apollo 11 lunar mission, Ronald Jones reminds us that the moon stinks.
But the real question left uninterrogated is not so much the controversial benefits of the new technology itself, but the question of how a posthuman society, intervolved with new technologies, can evolve from present humanist categories with less brutality than all the struggles that make the present world less than the best possible. A few essays in addition to Guattari’s suggest an associated ethics, although virtually none describe how to segue from an ethic of human individuality to a dynamic ethic of flux or ecology. Gilles Deleuze’s closing piece, variations on Spinoza, hammers the Ethics into a contemporary “ethology,” a science of behavior that spans life broadly “as a complex relation between different velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles…” Behaviors and events reflect an immanent dynamics, not a transcendent plan. Yet how, in practice, can ethics become ethology? The question is all the more insistent because of the fait accompli status so many of these writers accord to posthumanism. Donna Haraway’s discussion of genetically engineered laboratory animals as trademarked corporate products, like DuPont’s Oncomouse, embody a cyborgian revolution that has already occurred. Cyborgs, she writes, are
compounds of the organic, technical, mythic, textual and political - and they call us, interpellate us, into a world in which we are reconstituted as subjects. Interpolated - that is, inserted - thus into the matrices of technoscientific maps, we may or may not wish to take shape there. But, literate in the reading and writing practices proper to the technical-mythic territories of the laboratory, we have little choice.
More bluntly, Sagan’s “Metametazoa” asserts that “technogenetic manipulation of bacterial strains, which promises huge financial returns” IS ultimately “a radical refashioning of the human genome into new species.”
Eve Sedgwick’s subtly oxymoronic “Epidemics of the Will” twists this immanentist logic inside out. “Epidemics” illustrates how the colliding discourses of compulsion and choice dominate the inflated rhetoric of addiction that sells so many self-help books, groups, experts, and luxury rehab centers. Sedgwick’s Foucauldian subjects’ discursive genealogy has culminated in a postmodern consumer paradox; exhorted to muster moral fiber - “just say no” - the universe of addicts responds by accelerating their consumption of therapies. Incidentally, the subjectified revolving door of responsibility and compulsion protects producers like tobacco companies from misleading, obsolete, oversimplified reifications like “addictive substance.” Compulsion, a “force” that couples body with object, and in turn keeps alive the system of social flows that structures and supports this coupling, translates rather easily into the heterogeneous flux of deinviduated energy, the precession of natural selection, dragging along hordes of brain cells, species, and national economies. Metastable equilibrium - or perhaps disequilibrium - describes addiction, an eternal return to a not-quite-self-identical point of origin, one noetic notch removed from oblivious mechanical repetition. By contrast, “choice” describes an intellectual consent to already implemented paradigms, a will to imitate what we cannot challenge, an identification with political forces, resuturing the rupture of opposition as based on a misleading, obsolete, oversimplified, and reified notion of oppression. Immanentist, de-individuating, posthumanist ontologies might be said to enact their own paralyzing rhetoric of addiction: deterritorializing responsibility, they ensure the transnational consumption of compulsion.
The connection of posthumanism to revisionary media gets one of its most effective expressions from one of the “art” entries, the untitled, unauthored “case #00-17163” (although we find at the end “Project by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, with Mark Schindler,” and a list of acknowledgements). The piece presents 15 pages of forensic data, an overlap of photographs of the crime scene, illustrations of investigative equipment, fingerprints, chemical analyses; an answering machine transcript interrupted by illustrations and page breaks; professional description of the case, all juxtaposed and superimposed, no medium privileged. The equivocality of the media echo the equivocality of the evidence - a suicide/murder, a love quarrel, a drug deal. A dead “person,” but no explanation in political terms, no perpetrator either definitively included or excluded from existence. A confluence of events, a confluence of media: the humanist assumptions built into questions like “What happened” and “Who did it” exposed as superstitions. Science becomes ritual, and ritual is overwhelmingly aesthetic.
The more general merger between art and scholarly essay goes the same way. Ana Barrado’s nine-photo “Angular Momentum,” depicting Florida tourist attractions, oscillating from amusement parks to NASA exhibits, enacts a utopian posthumanist suggestion: the monumental but benign dominion of engineering over individuals, organizing movement, facilitating “fun.” But like the amusements depicted by Barrado, non-discursive essay media determinedly “aestheticize” the collection in effect, even though their “arguments” theoretically make as much of an objective point about the world as traditional articles. Notwithstanding the nostalgia of Barrado’s fluffy black and whites, in the context of Incorporations these photos suggest the same question as much more controversial and high-tech media like virtual reality. People flow, climb, gaze, are carried along, pushed and pulled, by mysterious currents and monoliths of their own manufacture. Walter Benjamin’s now formulaic warning about the fascistic dangers of aestheticizing politics has a particular urgency for media experimentation, where the always-potent combination of simulacra and desire joins a technocultural shift with massive capital support. A whole class, a whole interdisciplinary intellectual milieu has more and more reason to let be be finale of seem.
Mark Poster’s stimulating analysis of Robocop closes with a criticism appropriate for the Incorporations volume. Poster praises the movie’s smart portrayal of the supersession of a “mode of production” by a “mode of information”: Robocop is momentarily stymied by a glitch. His target for elimination has programmatic immunity because of his status as a corporate executive. But firing the target re-enters his status at an eliminable rank, and Robocop kills him. Here, material destructive capacity - Robocop as old-style industrial product - merges with a more general information-based social format that “programs” him and provides him with a series of reorganizable data fields. Nonetheless, while the movie undermines its own off-base confirmation of capitalism, Poster insists that its ultimate effect stems from its own field in the capitalist scheme: “Its purpose is to make a profit and to divert its audience from attending critically to structures of domination that diminish their lives.” At best questions, but no answers - and, overall, enough imaginary gratification to bypass opposing doubts and go with the flow. Yet, at $34.95 for paper, is Incorporations a bargain?