For the last couple of days, I’ve found my thoughts haunted by McKenzie Wark’s brilliant interview over at Occupy Times. Apart from Wark’s provocative claim that politics doesn’t exist– though perhaps it could come to exist, in a sense analogous to how Meillassoux talk of a “virtual god”? –this passage, in particular, stuck out to me:
…the problem is: how do you occupy an abstraction? Power has become vectoral. It can move money and power anywhere on the planet with unprecedented speeds. You can block a particular site of power, but vectoral power routes around such sites.
The abstraction Wark is talking about is, of course, contemporary capitalism. Contemporary capitalism seems to be characterized by two features: First, it has the characteristic of being everywhere and nowhere. You can’t point to a particular site of contemporary capitalism and say “there it is!”. Rather, it pervades every aspect of contemporary life, while nonetheless being absolutely non-localizable. Contemporary capitalism is an example, I think, of what Tim Morton has in mind by “hyperobjects”. As Morton puts it,
hyperobjects are viscous—they adhere to you no matter how hard to try to pull away, rendering ironic distance obsolete. Now I’ll argue that they are also nonlocal. That is, hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space such that any particular (local) manifestation never reveals the totality of the hyperobject.
When you feel raindrops falling on your head, you are experiencing climate, in some sense. In particular you are experiencing the climate change known as global warming. But you are never directly experiencing global warming as such. Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events—which will increase as global warming takes off—will you find global warming.
In the language of my machine-oriented ontology or onticology, we would say that we only ever encounter local manifestations of hyperobjects, local events or appearances of hyperobjects, and never the hyperobject as such. Hyperobjects as such are purely virtual or withdrawn. They can’t be directly touched. And what’s worse, contrary to Locke’s principle of individuation whereby an individual is individuated by virtue of its location in a particular place and at a particular time, hyperobjects are without a site or place. They are, as Morton says, non-local. This, then, is a central problem, for how do you combat something that is everywhere and nowhere? How do you engage something that is non-local? If an army is over there I can readily target it. If a particular munitions factor is over here, then I can readily target it. But how do we target something that is non-local and that is incorporeal? This is the problem with occupying an abstraction.
Second, contemporary capitalism is massively redundant. This, I think, is what Wark is getting at when he speaks of contemporary power as “vectoral”. Under what Wark calls “vector power”, we have configurations of power where attacks at one site have very little impact insofar as flows can simply be re-channeled through another set of nodes in the network. Like a hydra, you cut off one head only to have another head appear in its place. The head can never be cut off once and for all because there is no single head.
The crisis of contemporary politics is thus the crisis of the erasure of site. In the age of hyperobjects, we come to dwell in a world where there is no clear site of political antagonism and therefore no real sense of how and where to engage.
Here I’m also inclined to say that we need to be clear about system references in our political theorizing and action. We think a lot about the content of our political theorizing and positions, but I don’t think we think a lot about how our political theories are supposed to actually act in the world. As a result, much contemporary leftist political theory ends up in a performative contradiction. It claims, following Marx, that it’s aim is not to represent the world but to change it, yet it never escapes the burrows of academic journals, conferences, and presses to actually do so. Like the Rat-Man’s obsessional neurosis where his actions in returning the glasses were actually designed to fail, there seems to be a built in tendency in these forms of theorization to unconsciously organize their own failure. And here I can’t resist suggesting that this comes as no surprise given that, in Lacanian terms, the left is the position of the hysteric and as such has “a desire for an unsatisfied desire”. In such circumstances the worst thing consists in getting what you want. We on the left need to traverse our fantasy so as to avoid this sterile and self-defeating repetition; and this entails shifting from the position of political critique (hysterical protest), to political construction– actually envisioning and building alternatives.
So what’s the issue with system-reference? The great autopoietic sociological systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann, makes this point nicely. For Luhmann, there are intra-systemic references and inter-systemic references. Intra-systemic references refer to processes that are strictly for the sake of reproducing or maintaining the system in question. Take the example of a cell. A cell, for-itself, is not for anything beyond itself. The processes that take place within the cell are simply for continuing the existence of the cell across time. While the cell might certainly emit various chemicals and hormones as a result of these processes, from its own intra-systemic perspective, it is not for the sake of affecting these other cells with those hormones. They’re simply by-products. Capitalism or economy is similar. Capitalists talk a good game about benefiting the rest of the world through the technologies they produce, the medicines they create (though usually it’s government and universities that invent these medicines), the jobs they create, etc., but really the sole aim of any corporation is identical to that of a cell: to endure through time or reproduce itself through the production of capital. This production of capital is not for anything and does not refer to anything outside itself. These operations of capital production are intra-systemic. By contrast, inter-systemic operations would refer to something outside the system and its auto-reproduction. They would be for something else.
Luhmann argues that every autopoietic system has this sort of intra-systemic dimension. Autopoietic systems are, above all, organized around maintaining themselves or enduring. This raises serious questions about academic political theory. Academia is an autopoietic system. As an autopoietic system, it aims to endure, reproduce itself, etc. It must engage in operations or procedures from moment to moment to do so. These operations consist in the production of students that eventually become scholars or professors, the writing of articles, the giving of conferences, the production of books and classes, etc. All of these are operations through which the academic system maintains itself across time. The horrifying consequence of this is that the reasons we might give for why we do what we do might (and often) have little to do with what’s actually taking place in system continuance. We say that our articles are designed to demolish capital, inequality, sexism, homophobia, climate disaster, etc., but if we look at how this system actually functions we suspect that the references here are only intra-systemic, that they are only addressing the choir or other academics, that they are only about maintaining that system, and that they never proliferate through the broader world. Indeed, our very style is often a big fuck you to the rest of the world as it requires expert knowledge to be comprehended, thereby insuring that it can have no impact on broader collectives to produce change. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that our talk about changing the world is a sort of alibi, a sort of rationalization, for a very different set of operations that are taking place. Just as the capitalist says he’s trying to benefit the world, the academic tries to say he’s trying to change the world when all he’s really doing is maintaining a particular operationally closed autopoietic system. How to break this closure is a key question for any truly engaged political theory. And part of breaking that closure will entail eating some humble pie. Adam Kotsko wrote a wonderful and hilarious post on the absurdities of some political theorizing and its self-importance today. We’ve failed horribly with university politics and defending the humanities, yet in our holier-than-thou attitudes we call for a direct move to communism. Perhaps we need to reflect a bit on ourselves and our strategies and what political theory should be about.
Setting all this aside, I think there’s a danger in Wark’s claims about abstraction (though I think he’s asking the right sort of question). The danger in treating hyperobjects like capitalism as being everywhere and nowhere is that our ability to act becomes paralyzed. As a materialist, I’m committed to the thesis that everything is ultimately material and requires some sort of material embodiment. If that’s true, it follows that there are points of purchase on every object, even where that object is a hyperobject. This is why, given the current form that power takes or the age of hyperobjects, I believe that forms of theory such as new materialism, object-oriented ontology, and actor-network theory are more important than ever (clearly the Whiteheadians are out as they see everything as internally related, as an organism, and therefore have no way of theorizing change and political engagement; they’re quasi-Hegelian, justifying even the discord in the world as a part of “god’s” selection and harmonization of intensities).
The important thing to remember is that hyperobjects like capitalism are unable to function without a material base. They require highways, shipping routes, trains and railroads, fiber optic cables for communication, and a host of other things besides. Without what Shannon Mattern calls “infrastructure”, it’s impossible for this particular hyperobject exists. Every hyperobject requires its arteries. Information, markets, trade, require the paths along which they travel and capitalism as we know it today would not be possible without its paths. The problem with so much political theory today is that it focuses on the semiosphere in the form of ideologies, discourses, narratives, laws, etc., ignoring the arteries required for the semiosphere to exercise its power. For example, we get OWS standing in front of Wall Street protesting— engaging in a speech act –yet one wonders if speech is an adequate way of addressing the sort of system we exist in. Returning to system’s theory, is the system of capital based on individual decisions of bankers and CEO’s, or does the system itself have its own cognition, it’s own mode of action, that they’re ineluctably trapped in? Isn’t there a sort of humanist prejudice embodied in this form of political engagement? It has value in that it might create larger collectives of people to fight these intelligent aliens that live amongst us (markets, corporations, etc), but it doesn’t address these aliens themselves because it doesn’t even acknowledge their existence.
What we need is a politics adequate to hyperobjects, and that is above all a politics that targets arteries. OOO, new materialism, and actor-network theory are often criticized for being “apolitical” by people who are fascinated with political declarations, who are obsessed with showing that your papers are in order, that you’ve chosen the right team, and that see critique and protest as the real mode of political engagement. But it is not clear what difference these theorists are making and how they are escaping intra-systemic self-reference and auto-reproduction. But the message of these orientations is “to the things themselves!”, “to the assemblages themselves!” “Quit your macho blather about where you stand, and actually map power and how it exercises itself!” And part of this re-orientation of politics, if it exists, consists in rendering deconstruction far more concrete. Deconstruction would no longer show merely the leaks in any system and its diacritical oppositions, it would go to the things themselves. What does that mean? It means that deconstruction would practice onto-cartography or identify the arteries by which capitalism perpetuates itself and find ways to block them. You want to topple the 1% and get their attention? Don’t stand in front of Wall Street and bitch at bankers and brokers, occupy a highway. Hack a satellite and shut down communications. Block a port. Erase data banks, etc. Block the arteries; block the paths that this hyperobject requires to sustain itself. This is the only way you will tilt the hands of power and create bargaining power with government organs of capital and corporations. You have to hit them where they live, in their arteries. Did anyone ever change their diet without being told that they would die? Your critique is an important and indispensable step, but if you really wish to produce change you need to find ways to create heart attacks and aneurysms. Short of that, your activity is just masturbation. But this requires coming to discern where the arteries are and doing a little less critique of cultural artifacts and ideologies. Yet choose your targets carefully. The problem with the Seattle protests was that they chose idiotic targets and simply acted on impotent rage. A window is not an artery. It doesn’t organize a flow of communication and capital. It’s the arteries that you need to locate. I guess this post will get Homeland Security after me.