AFFECTIVE ATTUNEMENT IN A FIELD OF CATASTROPHE: Interview med Brian Massumi og Erin Manning


A conversation between Erin Manning, Brian Massumi, Jonas Fritsch and Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, July 12 2011, Montreal.

THOMSEN: Brian, we were reading your interview to The Guardian from April 15, 2011[1] – we were thinking of maybe getting into what we are experiencing now as affect related to new media and globalization. I have taught an article from Mary Ann Doane called ‘Information Crisis Catastrophe’ from 1990. There she is talking about this present-ness relating television time to the way we consider the news, in which form they come, and she’s – in 1990 – talking about catastrophe as the exceptional mode. It doesn’t take place very often. But nowadays we see, it’s the most ubiquitous mode. We were talking about how in this article of yours you are relating very much this ‘affectness’ and the affect power of new media and globalization to risk society and to real catastrophes where there is no boundary. The boundary between cultural production and natural forces is fused today, almost not there, as well as the ability to actually act and also be in touch with other people is in a way missing. It’s very hard, it’s very slippery, to actually be in the world. And we were talking about the last sentence: ‘An ecological alter-politics must also be an alter-politics of affect.’

MASSUMI: Which I didn’t explain at all.

THOMSEN: But that was why we were thinking that maybe the diagram or this, as you also mention in Parables for the Virtual,[2] the biogram, might be a way of re-figuring how we could actually react to those affective powers.

MASSUMI: Well, I think that the kinds of contact we were used to having and that we experience as live and interpersonal has become dispersed. I don’t think they’ve been replaced by a disconnect, but by a different kind of contact that is just as affectively charged. And it’s clear that crisis and catastrophe are no longer exceptional, they’re the normal situation, as Benjamin famously said. The complexity of the interlocking systems we live in, on the social, cultural, economic, and natural levels, is now felt in all its complexity, because we’re reaching certain tipping points, for example in relation to climate change and refugee flows. There is a sense that we’re in a far-from-equilibrium situation where each of the systems we depend on for stability is perpetually on the verge of tipping over into crisis, with the danger that there will be a sort of cascade of effects through its sister systems, a domino effect. It’s a very unstable, quasi-chaotic situation. And there’s no vantage point from which to understand it from the outside. We’re immersed in it. We’re absorbed in the imminence of catastrophe, always braced for it – which means it has become immanent to our field of life. That imminence-immanence, is a mode of contact, of direct affective proximity, even if it occurs “at a distance” through the action of the media, or more to the point within an increasingly integrated media ecology. When we talk about how affect works now, I think we have to start from the fact that we are all braced in that field of immi(a)nence. Our bodies and our lives are almost a kind of a resonating chamber for media-borne perturbations that strike us and run through us, that strike us and beyond us simultaneously. This is all happening at a level before we can position ourselves, before we are in a position to step back and try to rationalize the experience. We are braced into the experience, inducted into it in a very direct, bodily way, before we can adopt a considered posture toward it. That’s why I talk about “immediation” in Semblance and Event[3] and use the model of the event to talk about what has been traditionally analyzed in terms of mediation and transmission. What I’m talking about is more an immediate in-bracing, than a mediation in the traditional sense. This in-bracing has more to do with complex field effects, and their wave-like amplification and propagation, than with point-to-point transmissions.

From this perspective, the question is then what happens in the field, in all immediacy? It seems to me that rather than personally positioning each individual, it braces them into a kind of differential attunement with others. We’re all in on the event together, but we’re in it together differently. We each come with a different set of tendencies, habits, and action potentials. That’s what I mean by differential attunement: a collective in-bracing in the immediacy of an affective event, but differently in each case. “Attunement” refers to the direct capture of attention and energies by the event. “Differential” refers to the fact that we each are taken into the event from a different angle, and move out of it following our own singular trajectories, riding the waves in our own inimitable way. It’s the idea of an event snapping us to attention together, and correlating our diversity to the affective charge that brings and that energizes the whole situation. And it’s the idea that this happens at a level where direct bodily reactions and our ability to think are so directly bound up with each other that they can’t be separated out yet from each other, or from the energizing of the event. I don’t believe that our condition is homogenizing, as so many critiques of the contemporary media environment say, or that things work in the first instance by positioning the individual, as ideological critique might say — even though there are certain presuppositions that get performatively implanted in the field, and certain tendencies already vectorizing it in a kind of proto-organization of what is happening. The main point is it’s all happening far-from-equilibrium, so that what counts is the fielding of instability, and the fact that unpredictable order-out-of-chaos effects can always disable, deviate, or reconfigure any pre-organization. So when I’m talking about affect I’m talking about a directly relational immersion in a field of immi(a)nence from which determined actions and determinate thoughts have to emerge. They have to be extracted from the field of complexity on the fly, performatively.

The question then becomes what modulates the extraction. Overall it’s modulated by the feeling of threat that comes with the sense of emergency, and by the securitization procedures that have been set in place in response. But securitization assumes instablity. Security is not the opposite of insecurity. It’s wed to it. In his book on trust and power Niklas Luhmann is clear about that. To produce security with any regularity, he says, you have to produce the insecurity it’s predicated on. Foucault makes the same point. Security measures have to be taken pre-emptively, because we’re always caught in the first flush of something happening under complex emergency conditions, before it can be known where it will go and what it will become. They have to bootstrap order back out of quasi-chaos. I’ve argued that this qualifies them a procedures of becoming, or what I call “ontopower.” So the question of affective politics for me is accepting that we’re in that field of collective differential attunement or collective individuation, that we’re always being thrown back to it in a direct, immersive, immediated way, and asking what ontopower we can exercise that gets out of that securitization loop. How can we exert some influence flush with that immersion, but disabling or disabling the presuppositions of securitization? How can we implant new presuppositions, and proto-organize more liveable and convivial tendencies? I think a concept like the biogram is a very good place to begin. The biogram is a version of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “diagram,” but applied to an individual life modulating its own course under conditions of complexity. To diagram, or biogram, is not to pre-define. It’s about techniques for moving into and out of the immersive field of life complexity in a way that is oriented, or reorienting, but not in pre-articulated directions – inventively . Then the question is how you prolong the differential attunement, instead of coming out of it into your own personal trajectory. How do you capture the intensity of the in-bracing to remain correlated, to coordinate, to move inventively together in concerted action – crucially, without erasing the attuned differences?

MANNING: Also wouldn’t you say that these fields of resonance are themselves creating biograms? So it’s not about you bringing a biogram to the event but that the event is proliferating in a field that is itself biogrammatic? The question seems to me to be one of double capture in the way that Stengers defines it.[4] So some of the biogrammatic tendencies will themselves be conductors for more resonance and some will fall by the wayside or will act in ways that are less foregrounded?

MASSUMI: Exactly. It’s at the same time found and constructed. And putting those two together is not a contradiction – it’s a process.

THOMSEN: In Semblance and Event you give the example of the Deleuzian time-image. You can’t see the time-image. It’s not explicitly there but it could be aligned to a diagrammatic thinking. In order to experience the time-image you have to hold open the virtual images of future and past.

MASSUMI: And you’re in some way perceiving those virtualities without their presenting themselves to your senses.

MANNING: It’s really a question of time, of different qualities of speeds and slownesses, but also of the undoing of the linear. Brian, your rendering of affective politics happens in a verb tense that is itself looping. Preemption happens in a future anterior, in the will-have-been – but even the future anterior doesn’t quite cover its capacity to proliferate.

MASSUMI: Yes, there is a non-linear temporality to it. I allude to Deleuze’s time-image, but it’s not exactly the same concerns I’m trying to explore in Semblance and Event. I use the term “semblance” to develop the idea that there are dimensions of an event that are not actually present but are necessary factors for its constitution. Take something as simple as a line of movement. It makes no sense to take it as a sequence of points, because that abstracts the movement out of it. As Bergson said, all you get is a set of points, and points are fixed. The movement is not a sequence of points. It’s a folding of the immediate past into the present, as the present is turning over into the future, in a way that qualitatively changes a situation. The past and the future are necessary factors in the constitution of a trajectory of movement. But they are not actual, they’re alreadys and not yets. So when something is in movement, it’s exceeding itself dynamically, it is overspilling its actuality. It is more than present at each successive point. We understand that, intuitively, we perceive it directly, without having to think about it. If you think of a political situation and the kind of collective differential attunement I was talking about – for example a disaster hitting that you have no way of knowing the exact nature or extent of yet – there’s a large number of potential trajectories in play. The onset of the event crystallizes a field of potential movement. Think of it as a pragmatic field, made up of co-present vectors or potential trajectories that are immediately felt, intuitively understood, in an intensely embodied way, that call everyone to attention and energize us toward action – but are not yet actualized, that are more-than-present in their potential. That felt potential is the jumping off point, it’s in the very first flush and what’s coming, so it can be treated as a presupposition of the event’s unfolding. The potential is pragmatically presupposed.

So a way of thinking about this politically is in terms of pragmatic presuppositions that are perceptually felt without being thought out, but that retrospectively you could separate out as if they were the result of a judgment or a deduction or an inference. But this activation of presupposed potentials happens so quickly that no such judgement could have been made. It’s completely on the level of immediate perception, even though it’s non-actualized. You’re non-sensuously feeling it. It’s a kind of thinking-feeling of what’s happening, including what may happen. The thing is, our thinking-feeling of what may happen includes what other people may do, in correlated but differential response, each following their particular tendencies. The collective rush to safety may block a trajectory. Or someone may be already spontaneously offering a helping hand, setting an example to others that works like a kind of unplanned propaganda of the deed. At the very onset of an event, there are any number of these tendencies and condition-setting deeds coming together to create and modulate the unfolding of a very complex vectorial field that is directly collective – transindividual. That’s what we’re experiencing today, that’s what we’re living, that’s what we’re thinking-feeling moment by moment in this atmosphere of crisis and impending catastrophe. So one of the questions of the biogram is how the pragmatic field of potential crystallizes for each person, given the kinds of events we are living through together, how the different attunements occur across individual differences. Then the next question is: are there ways of tweaking these kinds of pragmatic presuppositions, crystallizing a field that creates greater availability of certain alternative tendencies, more of the helping-hand variety? That would be a modulation of the biogram. Can this alter collective conditions in a lasting way? Can the modulations be gathered up, archived, reactivated? Can techniques be found to make them more creative? These are the kinds of problems we’ve been working with in the SenseLab events, with an emphasis on this notion that there are creative techniques for the modulation of relational fields, and that it can help to think about them in diagrammatic, or biogrammatic, terms.

FRITSCH: I’d like to talk about the dynamics of this particular field of relations. It feels like it is both in a way over-structured and that you are caught in a kind of web but also it’s over-open, there’s always different ways out. And that kind of dynamics is captured, I believe, in distinguishing between attunement and for instance transmission that you were talking about before – it is something that runs through the whole affective discourse these days – that there is a difference between thinking about transmission or contagion of affect and then the notion of attunement, which is both allowing for an openness, but also closing down in many ways –

MANNING: You mean in the political sphere in particular?

FRITSCH: I was thinking about the dynamics of the relational field and what working on an affective level entails. Because there is determination in a way but also this total openness –

MASSUMI: Because it has to do with the uncertain and the accidental –

MANNING: In my own work I have been thinking a lot about the tendency we have to play out the affective especially in regard to the human. We’ve seen this a lot around the work of the so-called Affective Turn where the human becomes the bearer and conduit of affect. So I’ve been interested in exploring, in my own work but also with Brian and in the events we organise together, what I call the various ‘speciations’ ecologies of affect produce. These ecologies are constituted biogrammatically or diagrammatically in the sense that they are tweakings of emergent tendencies for coalescence within a co-emergent field of experience. They are neither human nor nonhuman – more like resonance machines that are activated in the between of the organic and the inorganic. I think of speciations – the elbow-table-lean of this conversation, for instance – as a kind of coming-into-emergence of a welling individuation that connects as a remarkable point or a point of inflection to a wider field of experience – the summer, the house, the post-SenseLab-event conversation we are having. The singular “speciation” of this current time-signature activates the wider field of relation toward certain tendencies. One of the things I have been thinking about in relation to this is how speciations converge not through a matrix of identity (“the” animal, “the” human), but through speeds and slownesses of welling co-constitutive ecologies. Thinking this way perhaps allows us to consider how fields of resonance or associated milieus emerge through the coexistence not of identity structures (the human, the self) but through ecologies that are as much rhythms as “beings” – different scales and intensities of time. This may in turn enable us to get beyond identity politics (as it continues to exist even within politics of affect) and explore the immanent co-existence of a relational third – what I have elsewhere called the interval. When the interval becomes an active part of what the event-constellation can do, we find ourselves in a radical empiricism without a preconditioned sense of what the terms of the relation consist of. This, I think, is what we try to do with the SenseLab events and with our inquiries into new forms of collaboration. We ask: what does this third do? how does it speciate? what does it co-create? what kind of ecology is it? I say this knowing that all speciations do culminate to some degree into species or categories. The point is not that there is no identity – no human, no animal, no plant – but that the species is not where the process begins or ends. Our proposition is not to negate species or identity, but to become aware that the force of collective individuation happens in the interstices where the ecologies are still in active transformation. In my own terms I would say that what is made possible by this approach is an opportunity for a kind of choreographic thinking which I define not as the imposition of a choreography, but as the creation of tools that enable the mobile diagram of speciations to come to the fore – a kind of incipient diagrammatic praxis.

MASSUMI: Yes, we’re in affect, affect is not in us. It’s not a subjective content of our human lives. It’s the felt quality of a relational field that is always “more-than,” as Erin emphasizes in her writing – always more-than human. Going back to the question of technique, the techniques have to be techniques of immanence – immanence to that more-than of ourselves. It can’t be otherwise, because you’re in a situation of uncertainty, you don’t have an overview, there’s no position of mastery, there’s a complexity and diversity in the field that you can’t possibly comprehend completely, and you’re changing with it. Because of this, the approach has to be heuristic and experimental, taking off from very partial points of entry where a tweaking might potentially amplify or resonate throughout the field. But you never know for sure. So you have to remain attuned, you have to keep attuned to how the field is affecting you, even as you are affecting it. So it’s a kind of double becoming, where you as an individual are being modulated by the collective field as much as the field is being modulated by your deeds. You’re never standing outside just directing or judging or critiquing or commenting upon or describing. You’re adventuring. You’re taking risks, not so much in the sense of putting others at risk – although that could happen, which makes all of this directly a question of ethics – but more fundamentally taking risks with who you think and feel you are and what you can become.

MANNING: I’m thinking of one example. I’ve been doing a lot of work with autistics. Many of them explicitly think of themselves as an ecological field, or a speciation as I described it earlier. Tito Mukhopadhyay explains that this has to do with a sense of bodying which extends the feeling of self into the environment. He, like many autistics, has no real sense of where his body begins and ends (he speaks of flapping his arms in order to get a better sense of where his physical body exists in space). We also see this tendency of an ecological “bodying” in young children where the limits between body and world are blurred. Brian told me a story about when his son Jesse was little: if he got hurt and Brian said ‘where does it hurt,’ Jesse would point not to his body but at the ground. Sequestering the hurt to the body as we do when we grow up and learn how to distinguish the world from the body actually cuts off from the welling event the ecology that was emerging. Because obviously the hurt – knee meets ground – cannot be distinguished as such: it is a speciation, a resonant ecology that has pain as its time signature but lives somewhere between body and world. This foregrounding of ecology over identity is something Mukhopdhyay talks about in wonderful terms in a book called The Mind Tree.[5] One of my favourite parts of the book is where he gives us the typical scenario between the autistic child and the doctor, but in his own terms. The usual scenario, which looks something like this: the parent brings a non-communicative child to the doctor and explains that something went wrong with communication around the age of two. Before that, the parent explains, the child progressed quite “normally” and then the child began to “lose” language. And then a whole bunch of behaviours began to stand out: tantrums, extreme physical discomfort which a parent might not understand or take as the child being difficult or being moody, a lack of eye contact, and a general sense often experienced by the parent that the child is no longer communicating. So the parent takes the child to the therapist, the doctor, whatever, and the doctor begins to test the child. When the autistic child won’t make eye contact, won’t play, etc., won’t identify as such in relation to the doctor, the doctor says “your child is unempathetic, unrelational, and really it’s a cross to bear; I’m very sorry but you are facing a lifetime of non-communication with your child.” Tito talks about his experience of this event, challenging this engrained identity politics and emphasizing another kind of encounter, one that is profoundly ecological and non human-centred – he writes of going into the doctor’s office and recalls the magical way the light reflected on the mirror and the way the mirror reflected back on the wall. He talks about how the curtains interacted with the light and how the door reflected it and how all this affected his relationship to the room and the room’s relationship to him – and he writes that yes, the doctor did ask him to play with some toys on the table but they weren’t as interesting as the movements of the light so he chose not to play or perhaps didn’t really even acknowledge the doctor’s request or the others in the room – why would he? The movements of light was much more interesting. When, at the end of that meeting, the doctor told his mother that he was autistic Tito assumed not that he had a disability – what was disabling about this wonderful game of perception he had been playing? – but that all the non-speaking moving things in his life were in fact also autistic – the curtains, the fan. What great company!

Tito uses this story to explain that there is no lack of communication here, no lack of empathy – but rather a kind of hyper-relationality that does not settle for the human as its point of focus. He emphasizes that in the doctor’s office he was very much part of the welling speciation room-light-movement, and that this speciation was very much intertwined with an emergent relational field in which he was intensively active. The suggestion becomes: we “neurotypicals” are so busy looking for human-human modes of communication that we too often overlook these emergent ecologies. In addition, we place identity politics and empathy on the same level and assume that communication is limited to human-human interaction. In doing so, we negate the force of the radically empirical and dismiss the myriad speciations in our midst.

MASSUMI: This connects in many ways with what I have been working on. Rather than separating out two types of experience, then calling one normal and the other not, what Erin was just saying moves toward an ecology of experiences, where there is not only diversity but overlap. What she was just describing as an autistic experience or autistic mode of perception has a lot in common with that emergent level of immediation I was discussing earlier. The example of the knee and the ground is a really good one. When I asked my son Jesse where it hurt and he pointed at the ground, he wasn’t just pointing to a place, he was pointing to the event. At that age, children haven’t learned yet to locate pain in the conventional way, as a feeling separate from the event. The event has factors that we later come to locate as “out there” as well as “in here,” so at the emergent level of immediation, the pain spans that difference. At that level, its significance is also not entirely defined. No child can ignore it, so it comes immediately with significance, but how much? What kind? Is this the kind of hurt it’s acceptable to cry about? The child will often look to the parent for a cue before following up on the pain with a cry. What our pains become for us is a product of learning how to parse the event in acceptable ways, and it never entirely loses its relational, transindividual span. Each pain event starts back in the interval Erin was talking about – x meets y, in an as yet indeterminate welling, and what x and y turn will have been coming out of that encounter is at least to some extent up for grabs. This is another illustration of the bracing into a relational field I was describing earlier. Accidents are another example. As an accident is happening, time slows and we have this incredibly vivid sense of everything coming immediately together – light reflections suspended in the air, floating shards of glass, the sound of screeching of tires stretched out as if by a synthesizer, an infinity of details. It’s only later that what autistics would call the chunking into separate objects, factors, and phases of the event occurs. And that’s all learned. There are techniques for that. An unexpected event throws everything into the air, brings all of life’s aspects back into question. It’s what I call shock. But as Walter Benjamin said, it’s happening all the time in small ways. Something as simple as a shift in attention, even a blink, is a kind of micro-shock that forces us to re-establish focus, rejig our potental actions, refresh our relational field – re-chunk. We’re constantly re-generating experience out of these interruptions, big and small. We’re a correlated population of intervals. As Erin says in her next book, Always More Than One,[6] every experience we have starts anew from what she calls the autistic field of experience, or what I call the relational field in Semblance and Event. Her point is that all of us are on the continuum, but some of us, those who the autistics call neurotypical, chunk so habitually that they forget the relational emergence of experience.[7]

THOMSEN: And speaking about that maybe we can return to the media-created affective level of immediacy on a daily basis, news on the screen, new media experiences. When you say that you are in the affect rather than affect is in you reminds me of Deleuze who says that we’re in time, time is not in us. We have to have both experiences at the same time. And what is interesting about this new media experience is that is somehow returns to this experience as duration or non-duration or time as compelling or framing ­

MASSUMI: It seems to me that there’s also a kind of ecology of time in the media environment. That article I wrote in The Guardian was quite a lesson for me because I had never written something journalistic like that that goes online right away and gets an instant response. In academic publishing, it usually takes a year or two before you get any response to an article or a book. It was a very interesting experience. There were different media time-lines that intersected in that post that had different affective tonalities and relational fields attached to them. There were the instantaneous reactions of the comments blog after the article. I’d say 99 percent of the comments were not only negative, but absolutely vicious. After a few rounds, they weren’t so much responding to the article as baiting each other. This led to a snowballing of derision and aggression. It lasted a couple of days, before the winds of derision subsided. What was ostensibly designed to be a public forum for considered discussion became a forum for fast and furious venting, for affective acting-out based on the presupposition that others’ perceptions and opinions don’t count – the farthest thing imaginable from the rosy image of the public sphere as a realm for sober deliberation, reflection, and the concerned sharing of ideas. It’s like that relational field was implanted with the presupposition that such a thing as a relational field does not exist, that everything comes down to personal feelings, and that expression is nothing more than venting them without regard. I think the public sphere – to the extent that such a thing ever existed, and I’m not convinced it did – is becoming more and more like that in all areas. The “town halls” organized during the 2008 US presidential election had a similar ethos. But then, with The Guardian article, there were longer-duration time-lines, in a different mode. These took the form of Facebook links and tweets, which operated with a presupposition of a relational field predicated on sharing and with an affective tonality of potential interest. The tweets disappear after their predetermined shelf life of two week. The Facebook links settle into the search engines, and can stay forever, like sediment from the event. Then there were the news aggregators that automatically sent the article out in all directions and embedded it in other sites, basically at random, and without any particular limit to how far afield it could go or long it would stay where it landed, enacting a ethos of trawling and grasping and appropriation endemic to the economy of internet content providers. So what was the media event of this little article? What was its relational field? It was all of those time-lines with their different modes of proliferation and differential attunements embodying different ethoses of engagement. Even something as small as that tiny contribution to the Internet far outpaced my personal ability to follow what became of it, and to understand how it was playing, because it was just too splayed out and proliferating. It was a weird feeling of instantly losing control over a product of your personal time investments and the desire for them to yield a graspable result commensurate with your input, and on the same human scale. I was in that little event, I was in the splay being pulled in all directions. I really didn’t feel it as an experience I was having. It was like being drawn and quartered by an experience that had a life of its own and a time of its own – or multiple times – and that I was just the launch pad for it.

MANNING: I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that in your article you also talked about time in relation to the global media response. Fukishima had a turnover time, a life expectancy of about two weeks, if that, and then it was on to Libya. I found it interesting in terms of the time of media itself, which is actually very restricted if we’re talking about how long the focus remains on an event. Then, as you say, there is this kind of viral level where the stories endlessly proliferate. Sometimes on Facebook I notice that old media stories are shared without the knowledge that they’re old – this often happened in the recent Canadian election with people posting videos of [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper without realizing that these were already a few years old.

MASSUMI: I call this new media ecology we’re describing a “quasi-public” sphere. I mean that there is relay and overlap between private and public messaging that blurs the boundaries between them. To continue with the Facebook example, you friend your friends’ friends, and they friend yours, and soon you’re sharing “personal” news with total strangers. The mode of expression is still “personal,” but the presupposition is of a certain degree of publicness, more restricted than broadcast but not exactly intimate or personal in any way previous generations would have understood that word. I find this fascinating because this blurring of the boundaries of the public and the private isn’t just the negative of them. It’s a whole new relational field where the act of expression is already informed and formated by its quasi-publicness, so that it is marked from within by the presence of others. It’s an example of expression becoming explicity what Deleuze and Guattari called a “collective assemblage of enunciation.” To the extent that we produce ourselves through social media – in pretty much the same sense as when we refer to what film producers do – we are fairly explicitly participating in a collective individuation under the flimsy guise of the “personal.”

THOMSEN: That needs a new affective politics. Perhaps it could be thought of in relation to what Marcel Mauss said about the gift structure. The gift is some way of attunement to another person or community but it has also this possibility of – you have to re-do the gift in some sense – and maybe, it’s difficult to actually understand if the media is actually enhancing that – the gift is in a way becoming bigger and bigger and the gift can also become poisonous in some sense. So in returning back to this eco-biological diagramming – it might be – that might really be a very – going out from the affective – there is something that is really needed here, it’s really needed. It also has to do with value production, the gifts that we share, because in a normal gift economy we all know what we’re sharing somehow, but that has been lost somehow. You never know when the sharing stops or when it begins.

MANNING: Yes, the gift has become increasingly important to us, hence the framing of our most recent SenseLab event, Generating the Impossible (2011) with the indigenous concept of potlatch. I think that the native peoples who practice potlatch understand something very interesting about the way the gift is a creator of time. The gift is the gift of time – I take this to some degree from Derrida’s reading of the gift –

THOMSEN: The Pharmakon?

MANNING: No, I am thinking of his book Given Time [8]and Derrida’s work on Marcel Mauss. In the indigenous context, potlatch, the event of the gift, takes place in an attuning against war. The tribes come together. The potlatch is a ritual practice that shifts the welling war-machine toward something else. This something else is not about the object per se, not about material conditions alone. It is about shifting the field, and in the case of the potlatch this happens not only through the giving, but also through the destroying of the gift. It is about the ritual, the field of relation, and not about the actual thing in itself. In the context of the SenseLab this idea of the gift of time (what is given, what is destroyed, what is left over from the destruction) is central to our thinking as regards strategies for collective practice. We are continuously searching for techniques that allow us to foreground this opening of the event onto its own forces for giving time – giving time for exploration, giving time for failure. Failure – like the destruction of the gift in the potlatch – is important to us precisely because it frees the event toward the unknowable, causing the event to reattune to the conditions at hand. For Generating the Impossible, one of the potlatch techniques we conceived of was that of the ‘free radical’, which we initially defined – with the assistance of Paul Gazzola – as a generator of intervals. The free radical would in some sense be what is everywhere activated in the event, but in this case, would also take the form of this singular individual (Paul Gazzola) and we would experiment with what this technique might produce. This technique came to us through the thinking of the gift itself as a free radical – that which activates a modality of attunement where the field is destabilised both by what it retains and how it is undone. In the end, I think it turned out to be a very interesting way to intervene in and move with the event. We collectively did eventually realize that the force of the free radical was based on our collective capacity to activate it everywhere in the shifting event-field. But it was useful for us to have it embodied in the first instance so we wouldn’t lose sight of it. This became a technique for conceiving of the potential of collective individuation to produce ecologies of experience that at once sustain it and open it to its potential. I should emphasize that our events are never created out of an “everything goes” sensibility, but are crafted through experimentations with a structured improvisation that we hope can activate potential paths for collective exploration. So when I speak about what is left over, I am really speaking of excavating from the event its force toward the as-yet unthought or unformed. That this can fail is clear – and the failure then becomes another way of restarting, of participating, if possible, in a new kind of event-time.

The question, it seems to me, is always “where do we go from here?” And how can the “here” be tweaked without our thinking that everything begins with us, with the human, with the personal. How can emerging ecologies attune such that they can produce different affects? How can we conceive of enabling constraints for such an attunement to become part of how event-time expresses itself? We think a lot about the modulation of effects – how can the event carry the force of uncertainty without breaking into nodes of self-consciousness? How can the collective recompose without an imposition of a pre-established system for the ordering of the disparate? And of course we fail and fail. But what emerges nonetheless is a strong collective sense, I think, that it is key to move the issue from human centredness to that of speciation, or an ecology of practices. To move from the personal to a sense of event response-ability. With this approach the question of responsibility, the ability to respond, is never before the event. Working collectively from this vantage point asks us to not to put ourselves in a pre-planned position of benevolence or generosity or accommodation as though there were an outside of the event. Rather, it pushes us to develop ways of conceiving of event-generosity – where it is the event that creates conditions for its own potential openings. Of course this way of operating can be construed as extremely dangerous: we cannot know what the event can do before it is doing it, before it is doing us. The event itself is a free radical. But we believe this is a risk worth taking since we cannot risk not taking it. The gift is in the giving with the event as gift-giver and what resolves from there is always to be determined.

MASSUMI: Yeah, when we were initially thinking about the gift and the gift economy of the potlatch – we talked about it last year when we were in Denmark, a year before Generating the Impossible– we were captivated by passages in A Thousand Plateaus that discuss an alternate conception of how economy works and what the values an economy produces. Working from an assumption of something like the relational field we’ve been talking about, Deleuze and Guattari say that what’s at stake in the economy is the relational field, and that what sustains an economy isn’t so much its structure – a kinship or social structure, a political structure – or the pre-established order of identified positions or social roles proposed for individuals. What they say is that what’s at stake is how the limits and thresholds of the field play out. A relational field is unlimited in the sense that it is full of unactualized potential for value creation, both economic and affective, and for the generation of events and newness. But at the same time a relational field is limited in the sense that there are certain points beyond which it does not go. There are thresholds beyond which it flips into a qualitatively different field of relation. Deleuze and Guattari adapt the concept of the limit as organizing the relational field of an economy from marginalist economics. They give the example of a tribal society and the production of axes for working the earth. If the production of axes goes beyond a certain quantity, the surplus is apt to be absorbed by another activity – fighting for example. This might lead to a change from limited ritual warfare to a new organisation of war. This in turn might lead to social stratification around a new kind of warrior caste. The entire nature of the society will change. So there’s a quantitative threshold that coincides with a qualitative tipping point. The qualitative aspect is what really counts. Quantitative accumulation within the usual bounds is just more of the same. Their point is that the quantitative aspect of an economy, which we tend to think is what economics is all about, is doubled by a qualitatitive order, and that’s where the real, processual differences lie. When a threshold is crossed into a new relational field, everything rejigs, what is valued in life changes, life is revalued.

Fundamentally, economies are qualitative economies of life-value, and the quantitative aspect is an index of that. Deleuze and Guattari say that there is an intuitive collective understanding of where the limits are for a given field. Not going past the limit, and tumbling over the threshold into a new field, is a marker of people’s collective, affective investment, their differential attunement, toward staying in the relational field they’re in, not because of how much they get per se, but because of the life-values, the quality of life, that the relational field they’re in affords them. This is not of course a consensus. It can be a highly complex dynamic, including opposing forces. In fact, the more complex the relational field, the more contested its limits and thresholds are. Deleuze and Guattari’s point is that not moving into a new field, or on the contrary allowing or effecting a tip-over, is basically a collective decision involving affective evaluations that have to do with purely qualitative, integrally relational values. Those evaluations are not necessary wholly conscious, or available for reflective judgement. In fact, it is certain that they are not, because of the points we’ve making throughout this interview about how movement in a relational field by nature overspills the individual and its actuality. That is why affective politics are so necessary, and why they have to be directly collective. The challenge is how to practice an affective politics that is capable of address the nonconscious dynamics that occurs on an affective level of immediation, and how to do that without becoming coercive. It’s in response to that problem that at the SenseLab we have been exploring concepts like technique of relation, gift, tweaking and modulation, conviviality, processual proposition, and lure. And we’re doing this within the perspective of anti-capitalist struggles. The marginalist logic of the limit and threshold applies just as much to the capitalist economy as to a tribal economy. For example, effectively regulating exploitation, of people or of the environment, or truly addressing the innate tendency within a capitalist economy for inequalities to grow, and grow more and more intractable, could well lead toward threshold states. What does an anti-capitalist affective politics look like that moves the global relational field in those directions? All I can say is that to improvise that kind of politics we have to take seriously the qualitative-relational workings of the field we’re in now, and see itself as working immanently to that field, in order to move it toward one of its constitutive limits and then over the threshold.

FRITSCH: It seems to me that there has been, both in our pre-readings, the readings and the whole spirit of this summer’s event, Generating the Impossible, the notion of life that has been recurring all along, also in what you’re saying right now, that it’s about new ways of living and also the existential part which would be bringing into existence, mode d’existence that Guattari talks about, in Deleuze’s Spinoza book where it’s actually about different kinds of living as an end-goal, and also livability came up a lot. It seems there is this tending to life, which is extremely beautiful and very powerful in its simplicity. You talked about a project for “life living” –

MANNING: Yes, a force for life that extends beyond this human life to the life of organic-inorganic ecologies or speciations – a different way of conceiving life. I often come to this via Deleuze’s last article, ‘Immanence: A Life’, which, it seems to me, gives us really profound tools for beginning to think life-living not in terms of ‘this life’, but as a project for ‘life’ differently conceived, life as an ecology of practices that continuously interfolds the inorganic with the organic, shaping experience in the making.

MASSUMI: When we talk about value, life and affirming relational intensities of experience, it’s often misunderstood as a celebration of good feeling, good vibes, but that’s not what it’s about. If you want to re-modulate relational potentials that overspill the present, you have to in a sense dilate that moment. You have to suspend the chunking, suspend the crystallizing of pragmatic presuppositions and the precipitous launching into the most prepared and accessible action paths. This involves a certain amount of disorientation, and that can be painful. Even so, it’s still a joy of a kind, because it’s intense, it’s vital. In Always More Than One, Erin calls that intensity of the suspense of a relational modulation underway “enthusiasm.” It’s the feeling of vitality that belongs to the relational field. It belongs to individuals only to the degree that they are braced into that field, in differential attunement to its stirring toward movement, its “preacceleration” as Erin says – to the potential making itself felt in it. It isn’t only attached to what we think of positive emotions. It’s more an intensity of movement, and of processual attention. Raymond Ruyer calls it the “enthusiasm of the body,” and associates it with play. Our whole being is in it, body and thought, together toward movement. In Semblance and Event, I write of this in terms of “vitality affect,” borrowing a term from Daniel Stern (which is also where “affective attunement” comes from), and I call the relational in-bracing it coincides with “bare activity,” which I take from William James. These are all ways of working through the concept of “a” life as Erin takes it up.

MANNING: For us the free radical might be thought in tandem with the concept of “a” life or the “preindividual” in Simondon. The preindividual does not connote something that precedes a process of individuation. It is, rather, an accompanying share of the process, a virtual contribution, you might say, that is capable of touching on the more-than of experience. We wondered whether the free radical might similarly be capable of making felt this share of the more-than that is so difficult to encapsulate but so central to the development of new forms of thought and collaboration. Life-living is one way of articulating this share that coincides with this life, this process in preacceleration. It is the virtual force of a process that creates us.

THOMSEN: But in the event you have the ability to actually experience it.

MANNING: I think so, yes. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ari Folman’s film Waltz with Bashir? It’s a film I write about in Always More Than One. I am thinking of it here in terms of this virtual share of experience that can be made felt but isn’t actualized as such. When I was writing about the film, I knew that Waltz with Bashir was a film that was received quite badly by a number of left-wing academics in Israel and elsewhere, who criticised it for once more placing the Israeli experience at the center, thus making it all about Israeli suffering. I read it differently, though, focused as I was on the way life was portrayed, and especially this aspect of the preindividual. The question for me was how life can persist, or what form life can take after a horror such as the Sabra and Shatila massacre. One answer to this would be to place everything into humanist terms. This, I argue, is what Levinas does when he goes to Israel shortly after the massacre and proclaims that there are times when we cannot face the neighbour, that sometimes there are enemies, pure and simple. I argue that at crucial moments a humanist ethics tends to fall back into the most simplistic differentiation of self and other, friend and enemy – an identity politics – even when its aim is complex, as Levinas’s surely is. What Waltz with Bashir does, I suggest, is take us elsewhere, away from a humanist identity politics to a different kind of politics altogether different – one that troubles the very notion of the centrality of the face to face encounter – to ask us how the horror of the other’s face catapults us into an affective turn that destabilizes the very idea of “positioning” a politics of recognition presupposes. What Waltz with Bashir does that is so powerful – and it does this through the movement of the image, the intensity of colour and sound, as much as or even more than through the narrative – is provoke another way of engaging with the as-yet-unthinkable (or as-yet-unfaceable). One of the ways it does this is by contuinuously disengaging affect from the face of the human – the human face moves from shot to shot in an expressionless sameness. What is active in the film is another kind of affective politics, one, as Brian might say, of bare activity – a welling of experience in the making. What’s important to me here is that we find ways of conceiving of a complex politics that moves beyond humanism toward a concept of life that troubles categories we too often feel are predetermined. This leads, perhaps, to a more complex notion of coexistence.

What I am proposing with Waltz with Bashir is similar to what I did with Leni Riefenstahl’s films in Relationscapes. It is a challenge to situate ourselves within a politics that troubles our sense of right and wrong. But we can learn, I think, from the complex modalities at work beyond narrative structures. In Riefenstahl, as in Folman, what appears are “biograms” – forces for bodies in the making. The biograms are not themselves inflected with an extrinsic value – their force is to make felt how the effects of “bodying” are propagated – bodyings that are always and explicitly, in both these cases, speciations (ecologies of expression rather than structures of identity). In the Riefenstahl example, I’ve argued that the biogrammatic extends toward kinds of fascisms that are more creative and also more dangerous than the ones associated to the Hitlerian era, more dangerous because far less disciplinary, as Foucault might say. In the Folman example a different kind of bodying is at work which also has fascist tendencies (as all micropolitics do) but at the same time proposes a different way of “facing” the question of the human share in existence. What we take away from both of these examples, it seems to me, is that politics is not generalizable – that the event (be it a film or an collective action) creates its own stakes, its own limits, and that we must continuously be alert to these stakes and engage with the limits. Ari Folman takes an important risk, I feel, in staging the encounter in such complex terms without predefining the friend and the enemy. In so doing he forces the unthinkable upon us and involves us in the process of fashioning a politics to come that will always have to invent its own limits, and trouble them.

THOMSEN: Yeah, I tried to use the diagram on Lars von Trier’s The Idiots because he is also making those surfacing moments. The action is the way to move the camera around, also showing the relation aspect of what is happening or not happening. The camera is becoming a threshold in itself.

MANNING: Absolutely. I think Lars von Trier is a very good example of a filmmaker who is always operating on that cusp that I was just talking about. We might think of this in relation to his recent comments on fascism at Cannes –

THOMSEN: Because the question he raised was really good. He was in a way asking, as you were saying with Riefenstahl, that: do we have to align the aesthetics with the politics being exercised, when he was talking about Melancholia and the inclusion of Wagner’s music from Tristan and Isolde. So he’s talking about – if we really like Wagner, is there some alignment between Wagner and this aesthetics and – the Third Reich. I mean, it’s a question that has to be raised.

MANNING: I think so too, and I think that the biggest mistake we make is to pretend that we can compartmentalize events according to pre-establised criteria. This is just too clean. I think that art can do the work of keeping experience complex by creating an open field for thought in the making. All open fields eventually gets captured in all kinds of ways but this capture does not negate the trace of the process and the way it persists – as I said before, it is always a double capture.

FRITSCH: I would be interested maybe also in terms of the particular forum that we are talking about to hear about theatre in this particular respect –

THOMSEN: Performativity –

FRITSCH: Yeah, in a theatrical sense. I’m not exactly sure what the question would be but we’re talking about art(s) in a rather broad sense, but also that there must be different kinds of techniques for different kinds of art practices to bring forth this ‘more-than’. I was wondering how you might conceptualize that in a theatrical setting.

MASSUMI: Well, there are two ways I could think of. One is that when we are talking about modulation and relational fields we’re talking about performative interventions. You don’t affect a relational field by describing it, or the subjects or objects in it. If you’re going to use description, you have to find ways of making the description itself a performative intervention in the field. When that happens, language is functioning as gesture, it has the kind of immediate force, the relational force, that gesture has. The other way has to do with the fact that we’re sort of double featured in relational fields. It’s not that we cease to be the personalities we are, cease to have those subjective characters that we attribute to ourselves and that other people attribute to us. It’s that, in addition to that, we are functioning relationally through our differential attunement in the field. The processual role we play in the relational field is associated with our personality, but it’s not reducible to that, to our subjective positioning. There’s also our tweaking angle, the modulatory effect our gestures can leverage. So there is a kind of role-playing or even masking where who we are in-act doesn’t completely coincide with who we are in our recognized human identity. There’s a doubleness, a duplicity, that can be confusing or even painful, because you’re a relational operator of the more-than at the same time as you’re pinned into subjective position. So there’s always a kind of double processing, which makes it in a way a staging.

MANNING: This reminds me of Deleuze’s concept of dramatization.

MASSUMI: Yes, that term comes out of Raymond Ruyer, for whom the virtual is composed of “themes,” which are a bit like the multiple vectorizations I was referring to when I was talking about the presuppositional field.

MANNING: It’s a dramatization immanent to the event. One of the things we talked about a lot during Generating the Impossible in my affinity group is how we begin a process through a kind of habitual dramatization. “I” is a habit, as Deleuze says… We were interested in rethinking how a practice of collaboration might be able to begin elsewhere than with the most accessible and automatic dramatizations and habits. One of the techniques we came up with was distraction – how can we distract ourselves from ourselves (in the context of the personal), from the centrality of our own dramas, our own ways of beginning.

MASSUMI: In other words, you’re not dramatizing yourself. You’re dramatizing the potential activity in the field itself that come from within the field and gives it arcs of unfolding for the actualizing.

MANNING: Exactly. This often comes up for me. In 2011 I did a couple of choreographic workshops in Sweden and Barcelona both of which raised a really interesting issue around the issue of repetition. You come up with a choreography, or a play, and then the problem is how to replay it – particularly when you are coming back to it after a number of years through a “retrospective,” for instance. In Gothenburg the issue was one of regeneration. How do you repeat the process and not simply the form, and how to you hold this repetition to its potential for difference. The economics of the retrospective are such that there is an expectation that the content is what will be replayed. The content in its particular time signature as well, right? And yet inevitably new work will have a new time signature. If only the content is replayed, chances are the piece will fall flat, since it won’t be able to activate the force of its coming-into-being. It will be a representation of itself. How to dramatize this process of replaying the old while processing the new without falling into pre-established habits? How to create new habits out of our past habits? This leaves two obvious options: rehearse what was, in which case it will fall flat, or reactivate, in which case it will likely not fit into the economics of the event. The second option is obviously both more interesting but also economically much more problematic since it cannot guarantee that the form of the event will be retained. How do you create a new piece invested with its own habits but culled from older habits? Enjoy the counter-effects of clashing dramatizations and allow them to take you with them? But isn’t that what you’re doing anyway (but to a far lesser extent), even when you are “simply” restaging? I find this a really interesting problem.

MASSUMI: We had a real experience of this issue about three years ago in New York when there was a re-staging of a number of Alan Kaprow’s happenings from the 1950s. I think we were both really struck by how the restagings completely lacked any kind of disruptive force, or the kind of force of the absurd that it originally had in the 1950s. We figured that the cultural field, the relational field, had shifted so enormously that the ground had been taken out from under that kind of intervention. So in order to repeat the force of an intervention, you have to recreate, you have to reinvent. The restaging of the Kaprow happenings came across as a sort of a time capsule, it came across as anachronistic because the absurdism and irony and playing with chance that were so disorienting then have become so much part of our world, not only of the artworld but of popular culture. It was no longer disruptive. This is a question of fidelity. Fidelity to the particular form or content to a work betrays its relational force. So what’s at stake isn’t the form, but as Deleuze says, the event. He asks what it means to be faithful to an event – in a totally different sense from Badiou. Being faithful to the event could involve a complete disloyalty to the form, because you have to reactivate, you can’t just reproduce, and reactivating depends on the current conditions. You have to take account of how the effect is integrallly conditioned by the field in which it intervenes.

THOMSEN: That is also what differs, what makes a huge differentiation between performance in the sense that we’re talking about it and performativity in the sense that is on a cultural level, because it involves repetition –

MANNING: Exactly, so it brings us to the question of the archive, which brings us back to the media. There are ways in which the media archive proliferates despite itself, as in the example I gave earlier of receiving things on Facebook that appear to be contemporary but are actually from a number of years ago (but elicit a contemporary anger or disbelief, as was the case in the left-wing replaying of Harper’s “old” right-wing strategies). I think as we collectively rethink what an affective politics can be, we also need to rethink what an archive demands of us. What kind of archiving is equal to the event? For Generating the Impossible, this was one of our goals – to explore how to create an event that didn’t predocument itself and that thus resisted its own archiving in the traditional sense. The SenseLab discussed at length how there is a tendency today to activate the event only to the extent that it is documentable. The problem with this is that the force of the documenting tends to pre-ordain the event and pre-contain it to a certain circumference – the event must be photogenic or encapsulatable. So many instances of everyday life tends in this direction – grant writing, job hunting, art exhibiting, all the CVing we have to do. We are continuously asked for documentation of what we have done and for the articulation, in a few poignant sentences, of what we have produced. Process is not considered worthy of tax-payer’s dollars. But process, especially one that seeks to develop techniques that enable a singular emergence is, it seems to us, necessary for a collective experimentation that leads not only to new forms of collaboration but to new forms of life-living. This is of course not to say that we shouldn’t document. We have many hard drives full of documentation we still haven’t looked at from the Generating the Impossible! It is just to emphasize that the event is not its documentation. The documentation should be an event in its own right, and one that needs to be thought as enabling a new set of techniques and constraints for the collective articulation of a process. It has to continue the event. It has to be the kind of performative re-staging of the event we were just talking about.

FRITSCH: It’s interesting because there are a lot of artistic practices in interactive media and interactive art that are kind of trying to disrupt the ways that we are using these technologies. You have for instance – I don’t remember the applications name (Serendipitor by Mark Shepard) – that uses your GPS location to get you lost. So you can kind of go from point A to point B but you’re going to get lost in some way. And they have different kinds of ways of using the grid to alter your perception of space and the way that the digital layering adds to the experience rather than directing it.

MASSUMI: Like the dilation and disorientation I was talking about before –

FRITSCH: And you also have different kinds – now I have a camera called Hipstamatic which adds analog faults or mistakes to the picture you take, so you don’t really know what it’s going to look like, and you change different kinds of films and different kinds of developments. What I’m trying to say is that there is inherent in this kind of media form the possibility to escape.

MASSUMI: They’re injecting free radicals into the system.


[2] Duke University Press, 2002.

[3] The MIT Press, 2011.

[4] Interview by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning with Isabelle Stengers, in issue 3.

[5] Arcade Publishing, 2003.

[6] Duke University Press, 2012.

[7] See Erin Manning/Brian Massumi, “Coming Alive in a World of Texture: For Neurodiversity,”

[8] The University of Chicago Press, 1992.