Sunday, January 31, 2016

Against Tolerance

I seem to have written this in August 2015 and forgotten to publish: it comes as an outtake from Finite Media, which I hope will be out by the end of 2016

Toleration names the absence of dialogue. What I tolerate is beneath attention, marginal to my world. It is the kind of tolerance Jodi Dean (2009: 85-7) notes in G.W. Bush's tolerance of dissent: awareness without exchange of reasons. In a culture of complaint, we rail against the unforeseeable – tsunamis, bush fires, floods, hurricanes – and tolerate the greed, corruption and destructive acts of the oligarchy. The political event is a refusal of this kind of tolerance: even of the much praised liberal virtue of tolerance that allows the unaccounted other to live peaceably without threat of Holocaust. Any end to tolerance is portrayed, in the discourse of the current order, as descent into an atavistic Hobbesian war of each against all, but as the political thinkers cited in this chapter all argue in their different ways, it is tolerance itself that, by regarding as unchallengeable the ascendancy of those who do count and can speak, descends into monoculturalism. By excluding, it creates bitterness and revenge, or permits itself its ethnic cleansing under the hypocritical guise of immigration control and security, restrained only by the right to live a bare life. To refuse tolerance is to refuse the illusion of universality, the common claim of representative democracy. The political act contests the silence of tolerance in pointing to the meticulous exclusion of the nonhuman. In thinking the unthinkable politics of the nonhuman, we open the space for a different order, different economies and polities that we cannot reach through shopping and voting. Such a political event throws into question not just the privilege of the human but what underpins it: the identity we award ourselves as human. In the end under the regime of Universal Human Rights all identities are subsumed under the single identity of naked humanity. What is at stake in the articulation of non-human demand is the end not only of rights but of human identity. This is only possible if the demand that instigates it is strictly incommensurable with the existing order, as the demand for happiness is. But if the demand were for square circles, the principle would be the same: it is the contradiction between tolerance and communication, between the true non-communication of the tolerant order and the actual communication of the unheard and ignored, that drives the event.

To break the unity of the screen-image system through the materiality of segmented flow is the revenge of the rationalized on their rational progenitor.

Latin and Greek

"Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it." This bon mot attributed to C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, in 1928 applies to the word automobile as well. Marshall McLuhan more or less began media studies with his account of these technologies in The Mechanical Bride and Understanding Media. His tradition is alive and well with Paul Virilio (though he likes his Greek dromophilia and picnolepsia).

For the next generation, especially the first generation of (frequently male) internet scholars, Latin roots mattered: community, communication, commonwealth, commons. . . .

For the newer and largely female generation, Greek fights back: synaesthesia, synapses, sympathy, syncretism . . . with a much more embodied but still utopian view of the world.

Sitting down to write a preface to the 2nd edition of Jussi Parikka's Contagions, it's interesting to note how Latin, of a slightly different inflection, fights back: contact, conflict, and the horrors of the contemporary. Perhaps this means nothing at all. Or perhaps it marks the conditions for a new connective synecdoche.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

formal abstraction

"Piet Mondriaan, 1930 - Mondrian Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow" by Piet Mondrian - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - Wikipedia

at the very beginning of a new project on political aesthetics that at the moment concerns Truth, Beauty and the Good, with first steps into truth being made at seminars in Paris (INHA) and Oslo (Seminar of Aesthetics) trying out distinctions between truth to perception, to objects and to materials, the idea came along of

a further truth to feeling which might include (as it did for Kandinsky and Mondriaan as founders) truth to the Spirit as supra-personal subject of the cosmos. Abstraction abstracts from the perceptible its constituent elements – colour and form – in pursuit of an expression of truth pertaining to a human or super-human subject. Abstraction requires a subject to feel it. In one direction it tends towards truth to materials (Greenberg); in another it leads directly to the next part of the enquiry, beauty (where it will meet the concept from data visualisation of 'beautiful data')

Abstraction as formalism seems the least intimate, approximating to classicism (Apollonian). But consider the abstractions of spiritual arts - cathedrals, masks, groves, mosques. The anthropomorphic principle in natural religion meets the inhuman nature of gods, as of the one God as supreme abstraction. By removing the diligent approach to the extremely perceptible and enumerable world, abstract formalism can approach the noumenal, but in the guise of a subject who either is, is modelled on, or is marked by difference from the human.

The formal abstraction is close to the idea of symbol traced in the first iteration of Glitch as Labour: it is not a signifier locked into a system but a radical punctuation of semiotic structure by irruption from elsewhere (and in Beauty from else-when). Like a soul-catcher, formal abstraction arranges physical forces (masses, light) to attract divinity or other souls, to provide avenues to the noumenal beyond.

Truth to subject then because (1) it seeks out the truly immaterial (soul, self) (god, spirit) as a subject, capable of agency sufficient to complete the communication - an angelic bridge between subjects and the worlds they constitute as subjects; and (2) because the subjectivity evoked in the human maker and spectator/inhabitant is constructed in yearning for something more wonderful than all this stuff. Not therefore to be confused with the truth of science or perception (secular wonder) but of subjectivity extended to become the very principle of simultaneous inhabitance of this world and its (perfect) shadow or reflection

The form abstracted from ordinary perception is the form of the human, of the subject: and of the inhuman or otherwise-than-human, of the Subject.

Montage would fall under this description of formalist abstraction because it displaces unity into the perceiving subject on which it depends

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

After the Apocalypse: Firefly/Serenity and Children of Men

A talk given earlier this year in Belfast for the Irish Screen Studies Seminar about two post-apocalyptic science fiction films, Joss Wheedon's Serenity (and the TV series it derived from, Firefly, and Alphonso Cuarón's Alphonso Cuarón's Children of Men . It also forms part of a chapter in Sean Redmond and Leon Marvell's Endangering Science Fiction Film. This passage comes from near the conclusion.

The dialectic of monstrous and sublime in these post-Apocalyptic films brings the two into extreme proximity. Drawing on historical accounts of zombi as culture of resistance and as myth of colonial hatred and fear of Haitian revolution, in a fine essay on Firefly/Serenity, Gerry Canavan speaks to the 'postcolonial resonance' of the zombie in the depiction of the Reavers. Canavan shares Achille Mbembe's analysis of the present as apocalypse:
To live under late modern occupation is to experience a permanent condition of “being in pain”: fortified structures, military posts, and roadblocks everywhere; buildings that bring back painful memories of humiliation, interrogations, and beatings; curfews that imprison hundreds of thousands in their cramped homes every night from dusk to daybreak; soldiers patrolling the unlit streets, frightened by their own shadows; children blinded by rubber bullets; parents shamed and beaten in front of their families; soldiers urinating on fences, shooting at the rooftop water tanks just for fun, chanting loud offensive slogans, pounding on fragile tin doors to frighten the children, confiscating papers, or dumping garbage in the middle of a residential neighborhood; border guards kicking over a vegetable stand or closing borders at whim; bones broken; shootings and fatalities—a certain kind of madness.

This, which might be a verbatim description of the Bexhill camp in Children of Men, is Mbembe's description of Gaza under Israeli military occupation. He concludes that this kind of government by permanent violence requires a new mode of political thought, one that reverses the polarity of biopolitics: we need, he argues,
the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds , new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.
It is in this context that the zombie appears, the product of necropolitics who takes up the strategy of the powerful and turns it back on them. It is the revenge of the garbage: the repressed and excluded waste produced by the consumer society returns to assault the elites that most benefit from the system.

In this way the sublime is assimilated into the filth and abjection of the Reavers in Serenity and the motiveless mob that kills Theo's ex-lover Julian in Children. Against that we have the homeliness of Jasper's farmhouse and the 'Serenity'. But there is that third term, which earlier appeared as sublime: the aesthetic of formal, classical beauty in art and architecture associated with the domain of the wealthy and powerful in both films. Typically we oppose beautiful and ugly; or beauty and the sublime. There remains a third opposition: between the aesthetic, beauty, and the anaesthetic: the numb, the sensationless. The calm white architectures of the beginning and end of Serenity, and the apartment of a senior bureaucrat which houses both Picasso's Guernica and Michelangelo's David (we are not informed if these are copies or have been looted from less 'civilised' areas of the post-apocalyptic world) early in Children present themselves instead as the anaesthetic of a class capable of enormities without remorse, as if there were no waste, no refuse, no garbage, human and material: as if in fact we inhabited the waste-free worlds of so many previous science fictions. The danger these films face, the danger we might even say of all nihilism, is that the voided refuse of utopia has to pile up somewhere, and someone has to shovel it.

This is why, despite the humanitarianism of Children and the neo-liberalism of Serenity, Serenity is in the end the more utopian of the two, not because it promises a better world – far from it – but because where Children embraces an existential and lonely act of sacrifice as the highest good, Serenity has us embrace the posse as social unit, and the principle of misbehaviour. As Jameson has it,
The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break

Jasper's farm, like Mr Universe's base, is a little utopia: a retreat from the world, but to that extent a cynical resort, a place without action except the action that terminates it. The 'Serenity' on the other hand embraces the difficulty of change. The present is the unique moment of action - definable as the moment in which events become irreversible. In Mal's neo-liberal belief, however, action is no longer possible: the heroic act damages but does not destroy, only redoubling the Alliance's desire for vengeance. Nothing fundamental changes: to believe is merely to survive in open space, the open market, 'The Black', as 'Serenity's crew call deep space, and the fog in the channel at the end of Children. The difference is that Mal's firm, his crew and ship, have as motive their continuation, their ongoing resistance, and sustaining themselves as a community at the expense of what the actually existing firm of the present does, which is to abandon all values save profit. The problem that remains, and that is integral to the externalisation of waste and environmental destruction in neo-liberal economics, is that this magical technology still generates refuse. Only in acknowledging this unspeakable detritus of history, can we be free to act towards the unspeakably different future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

de Soto

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto estimates that 'the total value of real estate held but not legally owned by the poor of the Third World and former communist nations is at least $39 trillion' (de Soto 2000 :32). de Soto's solution is to monetize these holdings by introducing the formal machinery of laws to recognize them as property, such that they can then be mortgaged and the loans used to create new enterprises. The difference between monetizable and what de Soto calls 'dead capital' is that the capital that can be monetized is alienable: transferrable, mobile, liquid, and so also transformable. de Soto argues that were we to count in this 'dead capital, the world's poor would actually own the majority of the world's wealth. Against de Soto, Mike Davis (2006: 79-82) argues that land titles benefit only the better off, invariably driving the poor off their land (in much the same way that selling council houses to tenants resulted in rapid gentrification in the UK of the 1980s, and a housing crisis still in full flood thirty years later). A critique based in Rancière would argue that the forms in which the poor hold land, such as indigenous stewardship, constitute a counted but excluded quantity: a part of no part, and that the genuinely political act would be to confront existing property laws with the radical alternatives practiced by the poor. The political principle is therefore not to bring new areas in under the existing partition of social goods, which is in effect to colonize them, but instead to confront wage-labor and property with alternative practices of unpaid work and unregistered landholding. The risk is that the poor's land will be taken from them: the certainty is that it will be devalued and exploited in the interests of those who pay the wages and issue the mortgages.

de Soto, Hernando (2000). The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. London: Black Swan
Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ethics and Animation

A talk given at the animation symposium organised by Esther Leslie recently at Birkbeck. Here's a sample from the introductory movement. The paper is mostly on Rango, and on the weirdness of voice synchronisation, and is rather unsatisfactory, in the sense that it poses a problem, then wanders round it poking at the places where it looks vulnerable, but without actually helping. In the conclusion, I made a too familiar and inadequate move, requiring an ethics of reading. Still, there does seem to be a real problem here, and it is in some respects that the solution to an ethical challenge may well be political, rather than ethical.

Applying existing codes to specific, often explicitly didactic or exploitative animations only tells us that the normal norms apply. I wonder whether there is anything that is more specific to animation as such, to the process of animating the inanimate. Should we, as makers or spectators, take responsibility for animated characters and worlds? Do we owe anything to the inanimate, to the resources we use in animating, as design ethics still considers truth to materials? That question is fundamentally ecological, addressing our connectivity with the whole universe. Against both the implicit human exclusivity of utilitarianism and the rationalist individualism of Kantian freedom, animation ethics speaks to what Simon Critchley (2007: 37) calls 'this moment of incomprehensibility in ethics . . . with the subject is faced with a demand that does not correspond to its autonomy'. If, as Critchley (2007: 91) also argues, the accelerating dislocatory power of capitalism does not lead to the emergence of a unique political subject, but rather to the multiplication of social actors', then the unique encounter with the inanimate is not experienced by a subject definable as human, but as a unique constellation of sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, indigeneity and so on. Consideration of the unique individual and the unique encounter concerns then a uniquely mutual dependence, which however one of the parties at least is capable of rejecting. Ethics normally places us in relation to other people and occasionally animals, but in the Anthropocene, are we confronted with the limits of individual and species autonomy, and does animation give us a laboratory for conducting moral experiments in the relations of control, contingency and autonomy in the frame of universal connectivity proposed by ecology?