Making-Count: On Citizenship as Right and Privilege

I have written in the past about the social force of rights claims; the ways in which they mediate relationships of response and responsibility between subjects who are, for better or for worse, entangled with one another in the complicated play of world making. Earlier this week, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander addressed an assembled crowd of journalists regarding Bill C-24, a piece of legislation that would dramatically overhaul the nation’s immigration system. During that press conference, Alexander made a curious claim: “Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Reflecting on this pithy declaration, I am compelled to return to my earlier thinking on the rights claim as an occasion for sociality. What might it mean to divorce citizenship from the structure of right? What work does the language of “privilege” do for Alexander and his government?

“Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Rarely in government is so much said with so few words–typically, it is the other way around. To begin with, it is a claim freighted with a smarmy paternalism, akin to the kind of scolding a parent gives a child who demands too much or who protests too loudly–who takes what isn’t deserved. It is a slap on the wrist meant to reinstall modesty, meekness, and undeservingness as the nation’s core affects. And in this sense, it is a claim that produces (or, rather, relies upon and reproduces) a profoundly gendered conception of both the claim to citizenship and the institutions to which that claim is addressed. For if citizenship is a privilege to be conferred through a paternal-parental structure of address, itself wedded to an affective economy that valorizes (stereotypically feminine) characteristics of modesty and meekness, then citizenship itself becomes a site of encounter between a benevolent state imagined to be masculine and a feminized would-be citizen. Within this structure, making petition to the state for citizenship assumes the form of ritualized feminine supplication; a ritual that doubly ‘others’ citizenship claimants by reviving the colonial figure of the feminine “Oriental,” that mysterious and submissive other who must be tamed and normalized through the discipline of the paternal nation-state.

How does the state benefit from this structure? What work does constructing citizenship as a form of gendered privilege do? What problems or contradictions does this articulation seem to solve? To ask after these questions, we may need to ask after the nation state itself. Though the state has always been a complicated and contradictory institution, in its contemporary iteration(s), it must grapple with two seemingly opposed interests. On the one hand, it is actively invested in making its borders as permeable as possible to transnational flows of capital, goods, and labour. Yet on the other, it retreats into itself in the name of defense, shoring up those same borders against immigration and the movement of what Canada now calls “illegitimate travelers.” In light of such split priorities, we might ask how, or in what ways, Alexander’s claims about citizenship intervene in or salve the division; how reworking citizenship through gender and privilege is an attempt to make these seemingly opposed investments work for the state.

If the granting of citizenship is already configured as a benevolent and paradigmatically masculine gesture, then we might also see Alexander’s statement as reviving or conjuring up the figure of the sovereign, the (male) acting subject charged with doling out individual benefits and punishments by fiat. In the context of the state’s split priorities, its volatile and often violent oscillations between permeability and exclusion, this mythical sovereign plays a particular role. I would suggest that it conjoins the Thatcherite vision of a nation absent society–a nation composed only of “individual men and women”–to the contemporary security state, which works aggressively to recentralize the work of population control and management (the gendered valence of Alexander’s claim returns here). The figure of the sovereign allows the state to retain the centrifugal force of neoliberalism, which splits the social into so many individual subjects, yet simultaneously works to (re)bind those subjects to a central, authoritative state apparatus governed largely by fiat; by the arbitrary conferring and stripping privileges in which the security state so heartily partakes (we might think, for example, of the ways in which indefinite detention without charge has become normalized in and among security states, even as those same states justify the practice by promulgating the vague juridical language of a ‘state of exception’).

Alexander speaks this script precisely. In the press, he alloys citizenship to the structure of privilege or gift. In the legislature, he tables bills that would empower the federal government to strip dual nationals of Canadian citizenship if they are found to be members of a force or group with which Canada is engaged in armed combat. The citizenship-as-privilege framework thus conjures up a mythical sovereign authority that sutures the post-social rhetoric of the neoliberal nation-state to the arbitrary patterns of othering, exclusion, and expulsion that characterize the security state. It evacuates citizenship of its sociality by redefining it as a gift to be granted–and revoked–solely by this fictive agent. This is one possible intention of Alexander’s declaration: the production of a new kind of state, one stitched together out of the ideological fragments of Thatcherite neoliberalism and neoconservative securitization, governed by fiat and as if by a single national sovereign.

But if this is the intention, how precisely does it operate? How does this emptying-out of citizenship by way of privilege take shape? How exactly does Alexander’s claim liquidate the ‘withness’ that citizenship seems to name, and to what ends (recognizing, of course, that citizenship, as mediated by the nation-state, is always also a structure of exclusion in itself)? Here is another function of the privilege framework. Rights are not objective, they are not static, and they do not exist outside of their articulations in discourse. This is to say that rights are made up of many things operating together: there is and must be a rights claimant, an institution or body to which that claimant makes petition, a more or less common language (written or spoken) through which that petition is expressed, and certain conditions of audibility and communicability that make the petition comprehensible.

Rights, in this sense (as I’ve written before), though often spoken about as objects that one does or does not possess, are relations. They require speech, they require that this speech be heard as speech, and they require institutions to act on that speech in a way roughly commensurate with the substance of the claim. The right is a form of social intercourse. It gains its status as a right only and precisely because it is claimed, asserted, rehearsed, and spoken in public; because it gathers bodies and institutions together in the work of speaking, hearing, and translating. This is as much the case for the right to citizenship as any other: it is a space of and occasion for social intercourse. Citizenship-as-right requires speaking, hearing, and acting, and it requires political and social conditions under which all three are made possible. To put citizenship in the orbit of the right, then, is to allow citizenship claimants to make bids on sociality and intelligibility, to participate in public economies of hearing and comprehension. It is to open the realm of social intercourse to the claims and participation of others/Others. Certainly, the right does not in itself guarantee such participation, insofar as the gates separating intelligibility from unintelligibility remain racialized, gendered, and historically and linguistically inscribed. But minimally, the right keeps open the possibility of an expanded publicness. It provides a framework for speaking that extends rather than limits opportunities for speech.

The privilege of citizenship, by contrast, requires none of this sociality. As privilege, citizenship rests solely in the hands of the imagined sovereign who presides over a non-society of individuals. As privilege, citizenship is emptied of the social content of right. It is reworked from a (not unproblematic) way of thinking relationality, belonging, and nationhood as social questions into a disciplinary instrument to be arbitrarily deployed and retracted in accordance with the exigencies of the security state. The forms of social intercourse that make a right a right, those complex circuits of speaking, hearing, comprehension, and rehearsal that hold open the possibility of an expanded publicness, are thus entirely split off from the notion of citizenship. Citizenship, that is, ceases to function as a space for speech.

The discursive dislodging of citizenship from the grip of right is thus a form of what M. Jacqui Alexander (Pedagogies of Crossing, 2005), drawing on Rae Langton, calls “illocutionary disablement” (p. 123). This is a “kind of silencing” wherein “the speaking agent does not have the requisite social authority and is disabled from performing illocutionary acts in the relevant domain, the domain where they matter most.” It takes shape under discursive and political conditions that allow certain authority figures (like Chris Alexander) to “stop another’s speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (emphasis in original). Illocutionary disablement is the making-unspeakable and de-actioning of speech acts. It is the ensemble of discursive, political, rhetorical and disciplinary tactics–for instance, the cleaving of citizenship from right–that conspire to make certain utterances fail as forms of action. To once again paraphrase Langton and Alexander: it is a way of hypostatizing speech in “the amber of disqualifying metaphors” (p. 153).

While citizenship as privilege, then, may permit the claim to citizenship to be spoken, it deliberately deprives that claim of an audience by divorcing it from the domain of hearing named by the right. It stops that claim from counting by keeping it separate from those who might count it. Again, here is Langton: “Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (as cited in Alexander, 2005, p. 123).

Citizenship is often understood as the staging ground for rights claims. That is, citizenship rights are in many ways the precondition for securing what we might call secondary rights. One must have the right of American citizenship, for instance, to stake a legitimate claim upon the American ‘right to free speech.’ The rightness or wrongness of accepting the nation-state as the arbiter of rights claims is, of course, is another problem worth addressing. But at present, this is how rights operate as a practice and technology of subject-making: the state grants basic rights of citizenship, and these rights become the ground upon which we articulate subsequent rights claims through collective political action and policy formation.

What happens, then, when citizenship itself is removed from the structure of the right altogether? What happens when the very precondition of rights-claiming is redefined as a privilege over which some imagined sovereign has sole jurisdiction? As Hannah Arendt once put it: what happens when the subject is deprived of the right to have rights? For Arendt, this social (and indeed, illocutionary) impoverishment evacuates the very possibility of making claims upon rights; it produces a negative space of non-recognition that empties out the hope for an expanded, contestatory citizenship. To the extent that it blocks certain subjects from entering the space of social intercourse where they might appear as subjects “outside of” themselves and “for others”(Butler, as cited in Gordon, 2012, 123), it is a deprivation that contributes to the making of what Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism calls “superfluous” people; people who might be disappeared without a trace, who are barred from even registering as people, who are undone in advance of all publicity.

The deprivation of the right to have rights, which emerges in the course of emptying citizenship of its social content, is in this sense (as Arendt claimed) a proto-genocidal one. Not only does it make mass disappearance possible, but it integrates this possibility into the very structure of belonging that citizenship-as-privilege names. It is a deprivation balanced on the ethically untenable belief that one is ultimately free to choose–whether by sovereign fiat or the granting of state privilege–with whom to cohabit this earth. And that choice, as Arendt wrote, points toward genocide. Or toward what Donna Haraway has more recently called “exterminism:” the making-killable of certain populations (When Species Meet). It is a choice that retreats to some imagined position of sovereignty from which we produce and deproduce subjects, make and unmake lives. Where we count, and where our failure or refusal to count–our unaccountable (because finally sovereign) un-counting–puts others at risk of being uncountable.

Loss, and Where it Isn’t: For José Muñoz

When confronted today with the news of José Muñoz’ untimely passing, like so many others, I found myself at a loss; a loss for words, as the turn of phrase would have it. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to speak; coming up against the limits of what speech could do, what debts it could repay, what it would leave unsaid despite all its best efforts. Pre-emptively haunted by the prospect of its falling-down or its coming-up short. How does one, in the end, give voice to that which leaves one speechless?

I wrote these words many times today-”I’m at a loss.” And so, while Muñoz often ruminated on the then and the there, I now find myself pondering what those words do here and now. What do we mean when we say we are at a loss? It’s a curious turn of phrase, one that imagines loss to be something like a location or a terrain; something at which we arrive, or upon which we happen. But for being a loss, this arrival is always spoiled, revoked. We arrive at, come up against, find ourselves at something called ‘a loss’ only to find that something cancelled precisely by virtue of its status as a loss. To find oneself at a loss is to find oneself not at all. Or rather, to find oneself in a state of wanting, coming up against the very limits of finding. To be at a loss is to be at a somewhere whose status as a ‘where’ recedes in the very instant we approach it or reach for it. Indeed, it seems to recede precisely because we arrive at it. This is the only way that a concrete ‘where’ might register as something called a ‘loss.’ 

Surely, this is an unhappy kind of finding; a finding whose promise of closure is undone by what is found. Perhaps this is why the phrase “to be at a loss” takes up residence so frequently and circulates so easily in moments of grief, death, and killing. It names the effort to locate oneself when the very notion of location is confounded by the appearance of the unspeakable and the unbearable, when our sense of locatability is upended by a certain bodily disappearance, by the slipping-away of one of the axes that makes location possible. To be “at a loss” is to arrive at a destination that retreats from our arrival. This is unhappy. It gives us grief. It spoils, causes trouble. It upsets and damages us. But the retreat of the destination is not wholly negative. It preserves, as well as spoils, and what it preserves is the act of reaching. To reach the anti- or non-location of loss is to find oneself with one’s arm outstretched and to be caught mid-stride. Reaching endures only and exactly because what is reached for retreats from. Loss, the place called loss, sustains reaching as such. To be at a loss is precisely to reach and to always reach; indeed it is to have no choice but to reach, to be reachingover and over.

Muñoz’ death is a loss at which we find ourselves; it is something we come up against, but that nonetheless eludes our apprehension. It is something at which we arrive, but that falls away from us. We are left, then, at a loss, reaching for something that cannot be reached. This is a reaching fraught with sadness and grief, but a reaching all the same; a reaching-out toward something that might yet be, even if it is not yet, even if it is passed, even if it is otherwise or elsewhere. It is an unhappy (or, minimally, not automatically happy) reaching, but a hopeful one. Indeed, it is precisely the kind of reaching in which Muñoz found such beauty, and to which he attached the longing for a queer future. As he wrote in Cruising Utopia: 

“Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbuded with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present… We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there… Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing…Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”

I encountered Cruising Utopia at a difficult moment; I was living a life that (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed) should have been happy, but just wasn’t, one that ought to have been full but felt empty. Muñoz’ remarkable words recast the scene. What had once seemed barren was suddenly rife, heavy, rich with possibility; what had been dead matter was quickened to life, reworked into so many ethical, political, and affective calls for more. Those unhappy knots and entanglements that make up a queer life, or a life lived queerly, remained in some sense unhappy, but at once bore witness to a past and promised a future. The world became captivating. It hailed, it spoke, it moved and it called upon, bound me to, and held me in thrall with. Grief remained. Grief always remains. But grief, as Butler has written, does nothing if not reveal the ways in which we are inscribed within one another from the beginning, in ways we cannot fully know; in ways that we can neither predict nor control. Grief compels us to ask how else we might find one another, how we might speak otherwise and go on speaking:

“What grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. I might try to tell a story here, about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very ‘I’ who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing.”

Grief, that is, puts us once again at a loss; it is a place where our speech, our attempt to narrate ourselves, becomes cluttered. But just as grief remains and must remain, so too does the attempt to speak remain, so must it remain. So must we reach. Perhaps, then, to-be-at-a-loss is better understood as to-be-in-thrall-with, to find ourselves bound to that which can’t quite be reached, to find ways to speak that which cannot be spoken, all while learning to be at home with the failure of that speaking. Perhaps when we find ourselves at a loss–deprived of language, of history, of belongingness, of fullness–we ought to approach the occasion as a reason to look beyond ourselves, to desire, and to reach. As Muñoz wrote, perhaps being at a loss ought to be thought of as “an invitation to desire differently, to desire more, to desire better.”

For me, this invitation was the promise of Muñoz’ work. To be queer is often to find oneself at a loss–to be unhoused, to be unable to speak, to be forcibly barred from speaking, to live through grief that cannot be expressed. In all this rubble, Muñoz found an ember: “Queerness as utopian formation is a formation based on an economy of desire and desiring. This desire is always directed at that thing that is not yet there, objects and moments that burn with anticipation and promise.”

Perhaps, then, up against the loss of Muñoz himself–to encounter him as that which is not there–we might also find the kind of hope and the kind of future he so beautifully defended. Perhaps when we find ourselves at the loss his name now describes, we might also find ourselves in thrall with him, with his utopian longings, and with all his embers. And perhaps we might, through our own scholarship and our own reachings, nourish those embers on the oxygen of prose, poetry, dance, and desire.

Where the Thief Meets the Parasite: Capital and Cohabitation in Upstream Colour

In 2002, the world was introduced to a new kind of artist, one neither machinic nor precisely human, neither eligible for canonization by way of being dead nor present for observation by virtue of being alive. The artist was called MEART, a “semi-living artist” assembled out of component parts–some living, others not quite living, others vital, but biologically dead–that spanned the globe. In more proximate terms, MEART was an installation: a video camera set up in a gallery in Melbourne captured images of human passers-by. The image data was then transmitted through digital networks to a genetics and bioengineering lab in Atlanta, where it would stimulate (and help to grow) a small dish of neural cells extracted from a rat. The effects of the stimulation were then be captured by a sensory array positioned below the dish, and transmitted back to the gallery, where the neural impulses stimulated a robotic arm to produce a series of chaotic, spidery sketches.

The sketches, the “product” of MEART’s process, are ambiguous and in many senses unremarkable. Divorced from their elaborate “contraptionist” (Munster, 2012) emergence, they appear to the viewer as nothing more than crude scribbles. But this is, of course, the point. Or one of the points. MEART deploys the ‘artwork’ against itself, operating precisely in the service of decentering the ‘artwork’ as a meaningful aesthetic category. The sketches appear as coherent, completed ‘artworks’ only insofar as they compel us to look backward, to acknowledge the incoherence, the (mis)translations, and the instabilities immanent to its distributed production; to consider the processual conditions of its becoming.

At every point of inflection, ambivalence enters into the MEART assemblage. The whole system, elaborate as it might be, equivocates. It shudders between multiple registers, some parallel, others meeting each other at curious angles, others fully opposed. When the gallery goer is first captured by the camera, for instance, we find a primary moment of abstraction: some sentient biological creature is translated into its own image or trace, its biologically dead but still recognizable and vital analogue.  As if to redouble this equivocation between the living and the not-quite-living, MEART casts this moment of translation within a matrix defined by two other seemingly opposed registers, in the negative space between the automation of the digital camera and the contingent, unpredictable motion of human bodies in space.

As the image data travels through the MEART system, similar moments of (mis)translation accumulate around and through it. Upon entering the network, it is, like all data, disassembled; broken apart into pieces and relayed through a series of almost infinitely variable network pathways. Yet this chaotic navigation is not totally unstructured. It is guided by the automated protocols and commands of code, servers, and ports, once again pushing variability and automation into provisional accord. When the image reassembles in Atlanta, it is translated once again, reduced from image data proper to bare electrical impulse. At this point, it returns to the biological register from whence it came, but at a different angle, shirking any messianic promise of organic reunification: it departs from the human altogether and encounters the animal via the neural.  The entire process, translations and all, is then reversed as the stimulated rat neural cultures transmit signals back over the network to the (machinic) arm in Melbourne, where the pen apparatus produces the sketches.


Though the project’s creators refer to the sketches as portraits, it’s hard to know exactly who or what, if any ‘thing,’ they capture. Responding to the mimetic precision of the digital camera with bemused indifference, they are accented by the ambivalent relation between machinic automation and biological contingency (itself split between the human and the animal), immanent to the MEART system. Not wholly unstructured, but hardly indexical. Bordering on ordered, but in what direction, we can never be certain. They are somewhere between an ink blot, a spirograph and a chromosome diagram; neither portraits of the human by way of the animal and machine, nor portraits of the animal by way of machine and human. And neither are they portraits in which the media of transmission and representation are confined to the role of substrate. In this sense, the portraits  capture not so much the actor/nodes that constitute the system as the relations between them. They capture (spectrally, as a trace) the variable movement of cyborg impulses–those that cannot be said to belong strictly to the human, the machinic, or the animal–across those domains, insisting that we understand them as, at the very least, entangled. More accurately: mutually constitutive.

MEART, in short, asks us to engage with aesthetic and artistic thought, with affect and perception, in a way that decentres the thinking, apprehending human subject. In such a system, the acts of seeing, being seen, feeling, and being felt do not move cleanly between the sensing human body and the sempiternal artwork. Rather they propagate outward from domains that are not necessarily human toward to those that are necessarily not human, and recursively turn back upon themselves. They spread and unfold across component parts not so alike they could be mistaken for one another, but not so different that they are incapable of occupying the same networked environment. In this sense, MEART, for all its elaborate trappings, ultimately makes a quiet claim for the possibilities of cohabitation, for equivocations that bind and translations-in-concert.

But there is a problem here. Or an omission. As Anna Munster writes in her latest, An Aesthesia of Networks, contraptionist artworks (we need more words for artworks that aren’t) like MEART rely on historically-situated network architectures subtended by the the imperatives of capital and the military-industrial complex.  The forms of cohabitation towards which MEART gestures, those that cross and challenge discrete ontological categories, thus cannot be too quickly idealized. Speculative capital and its neoimperialist proxies would like nothing more than to cross, to propagate, and to traverse without end. As such, these assemblages also demand that we consider the influence of corporate research funding upon the independence university laboratories–the kind that fuel MEART, the structures of ownership and control that such funding arrangements might engender (in particular, the ownership of neural, genetic, and other biological materials) and the ways in which the ethically promising relation of human to machine to animal might be recuperated by capital and redeployed in militarized forms.

Munster writes that when it comes to art that explores how it feels to be digital, “the point is not to bring everything together so that it smoothly pulses, transmits, and glows informatically. Instead, contraptionist approaches both interrogate the conjunctions presumed to be there and furnish new pathways for moving from one thing to the next.” But as I’ve written elsewhere, it is precisely these points of conjuncture on which the forces of capital tend to seize, attenuating the ethical and relational possibilities of emergent technical assemblages. What is required, then, in addition to works such as MEART that approximate or diagram potential futures of cohabitation, is work that directly engages and refuses those forces that would foreclose them.

In his exquisite new film Upstream Color, director Shane Carruth assumes this necessary line of critique. While certainly not as radically experimental as MEART, Upstream Color nonetheless trades in the same registers and probes the same questions, challenging the (ethico-political and aesthetic) limits of touch and sensation, complicating the nature of distance and proximity, and refusing the ossification of relationality by both capital and discourses of organic totality.

Color opens with an asynchronous, elliptical montage that introduces the film’s two ostensible villains: a parasitic maggot-like creature that lives amongst the roots of a rare breed of purple orchid, and “the thief,” an otherwise nameless figure who harvests the parasite and uses it to take control of his victims’ lives. When ingested by humans, the pest divests its host of all thought and agency, allowing them to come under the control of anyone who cares to issue them commands. We then meet the thief’s newest target: Kris, a successful production designer. As she leaves a restaurant one night, the thief ambushes and tazes her, forcing her to swallow the parasite in the process. Immediately, she is under his control. He puppets Kris for days, forcing her to empty her bank accounts into his name and distracting her with elaborate busy work schemes: playing games of checkers against herself, copying–by hand–the entire text of Walden and folding the pages into an enormous paper chain. But with his work complete and the course of the parasite coming to an end, the thief abandons Kris in her home. She eventually awakens, horrified to find the insects crawling under her skin. The sight sends her into a fit and she attempts, to no avail, to extract the creatures with a kitchen knife.

It is here that Carruth introduces a third key figure: an unassuming pig farmer and hobby field recorder who has discovered that the parasite is drawn to particular frequencies–something akin to the sound of water sloshing through a buried pipe. Following Kris’ frantic efforts to remove the parasite, Carruth cuts to the farmer as he methodically sets out an array of speakers in a small clearing in the woods and begins playing his recordings into the dirt. The low, steady pulses draw Kris to the clearing, where the farmer slowly extracts the parasite from her body, transfusing it (as is his custom) into one of his young pigs. After the procedure, Kris awakens once again, disoriented, cut and bruised, parked on the side of a highway. With no memory of what’s happened, she discovers that her savings have disappeared, that she’s lost her job, and that she must start again with nothing.

And so where most contagion/virus films fail to move beyond the infection-as-terror trope–often deploying and fixating on “the infected” as a thinly veiled stand-in for the menacing (and usually racialized) Other within a predictable salvation narrative–Carruth goes further. The “transmission” narrative is over by the end of the film’s first act. There is no outbreak, no quarantines, no evacuations. Instead, Carruth pushes us toward the question of what happens beyond infection, of what it means–and how it feels–to be related to others in the shadow of contagion, how we contend with the experience of unwilled dispossession (Butler & Athanasiou, 2012), with the perhaps miserable and difficult, but inescapable, condition of being without and “needy for connection” (Haraway, 1991).

In kind, the remainder of the film centres on sensation and cognition as social processes, probing the ways we feel together and apart, and how the condition of being together or apart complicates the work of sensing, perceiving, and remembering.  For instance, as the thief’s victims re-establish themselves in the world–earning a wage, developing friendships, even falling in love–the pigs to whom they are connected via transfusion exhibit subtle behavioural changes, and vice versa. Likewise as the farmer interferes in the lives of the pigs, he appears as a kind of trace or spectre in the lives of the human victims.

Similarly, when Kris begins to develop a relationship with Jeff (played by Carruth) after meeting him several times on the subway, not knowing that he too is one of the thief’s victims, they begin to impinge upon one another’s lives in ways that both exceed and precede intelligible speech. As they spend more time together and eventually fall in love (whether out of affection or necessity, it isn’t quite clear; but it never is), they start to mistake each other’s childhood memories for their own, struggling and often quarrelling over the ownership of their respective pasts. The effect is compounded by the film’s elliptical edits–neither fully out-of-order nor strictly chronological. Scraps of dialogue loop back upon themselves and repeat in unstable circuits, accumulating excessive and contradictory meanings. Words, sensations, locations and images return to themselves changed, not unlike the impulses that pass through the MEART assemblage–not so alike that they could ever be mapped onto one another, but not so different that we can consider them discrete in any abiding way. Returning at angles, never complete. Always memory, never narration.

Such is the relationship between Jeff, Kris, and the pigs to whom they are connected. More than mere mimes, they do not attach to one another in a clean, indexical fashion.  At one point, for example, Kris and Jeff’s porcine analogues begin to mimic their budding affection, yet the two relationships are not strictly the same (an important departure from the relation between the thief and his victims, which appears fully indexical, completely mimetic, a kind of puppetry). Where the pigs eventually breed and produce a litter of piglets, Kris, after a bout of severe abdominal pain that lands her in hospital, discovers that she has apparently undergone a complete endometrial ablation, making her unable to bear children whatsoever. In this sense, Carruth, while insisting that experience and sensation are not (or need not be) restricted to any particular ontological category such as “the human” or “the animal,” and that affects and kinships do indeed traverse these boundaries, also keeps the two at a certain distance. He sketches the relation between the two as a kind of oscillation. A vibration, perhaps, that matches the pulse of the farmer’s recordings.

Color, then, trades heavily in the experience of relationality under contemporary conditions: where the movement of viruses, bacteria and parasites between species has become an intense social anxiety, and where experiments in genetic engineering and in vitro tissue growth continue to trouble the barrier between the animal and the human. But Carruth, even as he offers something of an alternative to these often reactionary narratives, wisely strips his film of romance and utopia. For in Color, there is no question that the  experience of relationality–the hopeful kernel at the heart of MEART–is closely tied to dispossession and exploitation at the hands of capital.

To draw on a Marxian lexicon, there are in Carruth’s narrative two key moments of alienation worth considering. The first is the moment of “primitive accumulation” operative in the figure of the thief. In the first volume of Capital, Marx describes primitive accumulation as the necessary antecedent to capitalistic accumulation, the moment of primary extraction that precedes and grounds the structural exploitation of large-c Capitalism. It is the founding separation of “the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.” As Marx points out in the same passage, and as others such as Sylvia Federici have powerfully demonstrated, the moment of primitive accumulation is historically one of theft and violent dispossession; it is the uprooting and displacement of people from their lands, the forcible confiscation and devaluation of whatever forms of wealth they might have amassed, the conscription of human bodies into slavery; the moment at which the human body is pulled out of its relation with its own means of (re)production and tied to a structure of alienated, waged, commodified labour. To paraphrase Federici in Caliban and the Witch, primitive accumulation is the point at which an incipient capitalism produces its first machine: the human body.

The analogy isn’t perfect, as Kris and Jeff are both bourgeois figures to begin with, but all the same, the thief embodies the logic of primitive accumulation–the reduction of a human life to a bare life, the stripping down of a complex sociality to only is most economically expedient components, to what can be extracted. At the thief’s hands, as at the hands of the early capitalist, all forms of creativity are pared back to blunt distractions: literature is reduced to the endless reproduction of meaningless copies (copies that quite literally become a chain that binds Kris to a process of unwilled and violent expropriation)*, games are evacuated of strategy and contingency. Even the parasite, the thief’s weapon of choice, recalls the Marxian account of primitive accumulation, fixated as it is on the vampiric nature of early capitalism, on its emergence out of the dirt and blood of dispossessed peoples, the rubble of their relations. In Upstream Color, the force of capital appears in a most unflattering light: it emerges out of what it destroys, where the parasite meets the thief.

And just as the complex structural relations of Capitalism develop out of this initial moment of dispossession–generalizing, obfuscating, and mystifying their operation in the process–in Color, we find a second, more complicated moment of dispossession in the actions of the pig farmer. In addition to using his recordings to attract those under the influence of the parasite, the farmer also packages and sells them under his own small label, Quinoa Valley Recording Company. As Nicholas Rombes writes of the film in the Los Angeles Review of Books, this process is tantamount to the “pilfering and selling back” of experience. It constitutes a second moment of extraction, wherein the sensory is ossified as a commodity and sold back to those from whom it was extracted. And it’s all done via a socially-sanctioned, structurally-obfuscatory system of exchange. One cannot help but recall the Marxian account of the wage relation: a worker’s labour power is alienated from the body, quantified in the abstract, parcelled off into units of time, and sold back for a wage.

The violence of this abstraction redoubled if we accept, as I suggested above, that the relation between the thief’s victims and the pigs can be thought of on sonic terms, something analogous to an oscillation or vibration. If it is sound (or the sonorous) that opens the boundaries of discrete ontological categories to the transgressions of affect and kinship, then the farmer’s business of capturing, commodifying, and reselling sound is tantamount to the foreclosure of the relations towards which this opening turns us. It is an effort to rationalize the points of inflection within a system that both bind and separate, that relate without unifying.

To return to where we started: if MEART can be thought of as a speculative model for new forms of cohabitation that relate the human, the animal, and the machnic even as it acknowledges the impossibility of separating those domains, then Upstream Color suggests that the relations presupposed by such a cohabitation are precisely where capital turns in an effort to recuperate the affective and the sensate.

And so without giving too much away (the film is outstanding–see it), it’s appropriate that Upstream Color ends not with some speculative future where all species difference is eradicated, but with a present where they persist ethically, sensuously. It is a present where self-governance and care emerge, but only through a direct confrontation with those agents of structural violence that would appropriate such faculties for private gain and profit.

*Carruth’s choice of Walden as an instrument of control is significant. It is telling that Walden‘s bourgeois “return to nature” narrative, which wistfully longs for the recovery of some organic totality (even, hypocritically, as it extols the virtues of liberal self-reliance and autonomy), should fall so easily into the hands of those who would strip others of their autonomy. Complete unification (indexicality, mimetic action), for Carruth, seems to reek of control; the kind of control that would eradicate the incomplete, but sensually and ethically rich, relations at issue throughout the film.