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.

portraits

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. 

For an Intensified Cyborg Assemblage: Interventions Against An(a)esthesia Under Speculative Capital

This essay is an expanded version of a paper submitted to the 2013 Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research, sponsored by the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Full references can be found by clicking through at the bottom of the text. 

Nearly three decades on from first publication, Donna Haraway’s path breaking Cyborg Manifesto remains a deeply moving, uniquely evocative text; charged perhaps moreso than ever before with political, aesthetic, and ethical possibilities for a world–this world–in crisis. Indeed, as our so-called smart devices codify a new informational metatopography of daily life, and as those devices increasingly shift from hand-held into more wearable forms, we seem to be bearing witness to the return of Haraway’s anti/alter/post-protagonist, that ambivalent technobody that departs from no original unity and shirks all telos; one that “is not made of mud,” and “cannot dream of returning to dust.”

For those of us invested in excavating the embodied and affective valences of this moment of speculative circulation and emergent technical and biopolitical formations (though I would follow Butler [2013] in suggesting that this “biopolitical moment” is neither singular nor evenly distributed), this return is of particular interest. A resurgent cyborg assemblage holds forth the promise of turning us toward a conception of the body as negotiable and assembled, rather than simply given; a not-strictly-human body that gathers together and concretizes the novelties, the detritus, and the variable speeds of a world in which the liberatory promise of the digital is both unevenly distributed and erratically circulated. In this sense, a revitalized cyborg assemblage would probe the question of where and in what form(s) the human appears or does not appear within prevailing geopolitical and affective regimes; a question that, as Butler (2004) notes, constitutes a central problem for the humanities today.

This potentially emergent technical assemblage would name the loose centre of what Munster (2013) has recently called the “aesthesia” of life inside the network; the affective condition of being ensnared in and impinged upon by relations that necessarily wade through domains that are not necessarily human. It is where the speed(s) of information and the speed(s) of bodies fall into an asynchronous relation with one another, subject to any number of gaps and lags; the sort of negative spaces that open the body-technology relation to a range of critical interventions.

Yet when we attend to the ways in which digital devices and environments circulate within contemporary discursive formations, what we find is not an elaboration of these possibilities, but rather their unfortunate attenuation. Publications both popular and academic seem unwilling to approach developments such as the (by no means unproblematic) proliferation of wearable technologies on terms that exceed technocratic considerations of efficacy: “how do social media impact social movements?” “How will wearable technology change law enforcement?” Indeed, it seems to me that the ambivalent terrains forced open at the site of the cyborg as Haraway theorized it, and the potentialities implicated in its intensification or revivification, are increasingly under threat of foreclosure from a number of directions, only one of which I have sufficient leave to address here.

The vector to which I turn is that of speculative capital and the aesthetic forms it instantiates, fixated as they are upon a smoothing out of precisely those errant, deviant temporalities that emerge within a cyborg assemblage. In their 2009 study of pre- and post-2008 financial industry advertisements, De Cock et. al uncover just such an image universe. The images in their sample almost universally envision a world of friction-free connectivity and circulation (Brophy, 2006), wherein all distance is collapsed into flows of (commodified) data that operate irrespective of geophysical constraints. Fictive megacities, stitched together seamlessly out of the glass-and-steel spires that populate the world’s financial centres and presumably synchronized to some universal time (a time already under development in the board rooms and labs of today’s global corporations; see the Swatch-MIT “dot.beats” experiment), tumble upward elegantly, brushing against the lowest reaches of the atmosphere.

These spectral landscapes mimic the ways in which the network broadly construed circulates as an aesthetic object today. As Munster (2013) contends, networks of all sorts (financial, military, activist, terrorist) increasingly appear to us in a pseudo-sublime register, wherein one may be seamlessly mapped onto the next, regardless of the qualitative or temporal disjunctions between them. “Dominated by links and nodes, visualized as direct lines connecting dots” (p. 2) networks today assume a visual form very much at home in the image universe of speculative capital. Like so many abstract financial instruments, they appear “infinitely transposable” (ibid.), one fusing seamlessly to the next, leaving no trace of whatever violences or resistances this fusion may have provoked. In aesthetic terms, we might say that the contemporary capitalist imaginary is infected with a “pervasive mimesis barely concealing a visual and conceptual slide into…network anesthesia” (p. 3, emphasis in original).  

This anesthetic (anaesthetic?) quality, however, is by no means confined to representative visual texts such as advertising images. Rather, it both underwrites and overdetermines the various devices we now encounter in the course of our daily lives. In a number of recent press interviews (see Segal, 2013; Bosker, 2013), for instance, representatives of Internet megalith Google have declared that Glass, the company’s recently unveiled, headset-style smart device, represents a major step toward their ultimate ambition of producing “invisible” technologies. While such an aspiration seems to be at odds with an industry wedded to the multi-billion dollar business of advertising, marketing, and image-making, Google nonetheless seems eager to locate and occupy a space beyond perception; indeed, beyond the very possibility of perception.

This tendency, of course, is already latent within other Google products. The fine-grained personalization capabilities built into the latest iteration of Google Maps, for example, have rightly raised important questions around what is and is not apprehensible in situations where the boundary that delineates the two domains is relentlessly contoured to match the supple flow of capital (Badger, 2013). Integrated with a device like Glass (and integration seems inevitable), these capabilities would enable Google to quite literally–and quite selectively–territorialize visual space; to set limits on what forms, what bodies, and what relations are permissible within a marketized lifeworld. And though these claims make repeated recourse to spatial metaphors, it seems to me that such a movement toward invisibility also opens onto the temporal register. Glass emerges as a device that would neatly align, in the interest of shoring up profit, the peaks and troughs of biological time with its own machinic velocities, anaesthetizing the relation between the two and attenuating those moments arrhythmia that might make the body-technology relation sensible, and by extension, open to intervention.

It is also worth noting that the sort of fully integrated technobody imagined by devices like Glass appears before us as a paradigmatically male one. I recall here the words of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who during a speech at California’s annual TED conference in February 2013 made the rather curious (but telling) claim that handheld smart devices are “kind of emasculating.” In his words: “Is this the way you’re meant to interact with other people? Is the future of connection just people walking around hunched up, looking down, rubbing a featureless piece of glass…Is this what you’re meant to do with your body?” (my emphasis). For Brin, it would seem that to so much as acknowledge the disjuncture between body and device–to avert one’s commanding, full-forward gaze (we are in Laura Mulvey’s company here) so as to apprehend a smart phone external to the body–is to risk lapsing into a kind of slumping, disfigured, even grotesque form that he powerfully identifies with femininity. His comments, in this sense, reanimate those discursive and representational regimes that have historically configured women’s bodies as out-of-order, chaotic, and volatile. The feminine, in Brin’s imaginary, emerges as a site of intense anxiety that threatens to dissolve the biopolitical and economic interoperabilities that thread patriarchy and capital together. In light of such claims, it becomes all the more urgent that we attend to devices such as Glass on feminist and queer terms, so that we might excavate the ways in which particular technological assemblages shore up the resources of a capitalism shot through with the violences of misogyny, patriarchy, gender essentialism, and heterosexism.

And so while I began this essay with the rather sanctimonious claim that we seem to be in the midst of a return to the cyborg, the preceding considerations make it clear that under present conditions, such a return is simply not enough. If we are to elude the anaesthetizing force that contemporary capital exerts upon the ambivalent relations–temporal, spatial, visual, aesthetic, gendered–between body and technology that define the cyborg assemblage, while rescuing the critical possibilities towards which those relations gesture, we require more than a circling-back-upon pre-given forms. We require a defense by way of (re)in(ter)vention. We must press the affective and aesthetic conditions of this assemblage further, toward new and emerging terrains of contestation; we must multiply, intensify, and illuminate the relations that cross and recross its boundaries.

We must ferment aesthetic practices that animate “new political sensoria, and new sensoria of the political” (Taylor, 2013, para. 8); practices that trade not simply in forms already perceptible (the strictly human body, the link-and-node network) but in the domain of perception and perceptibility (Munster, 2013), where reality itself is plied as a medium rather than accepted as neutral substrate (cárdenas, 2012). This will require that we commit to thematizing the gaps, lags and crashes immanent to digitality (Munster, 2013), and be willing to depart from rather than disavow such asynchronicities.

Where much new left theorizing (Dean, 2012; Dean, 2013; Williams & Srnicek, 2013) would and does resign such sense-making to the post- or non-political, for Munster (2006), it is of the utmost importance. In bringing forth “sets of lived circumstances in which our senses are encroached upon, engaged and felt differently,” it is what grounds and makes operative “a socio-ethical-technical assemblage of relations” (p. 166) that might fundamentally intervene in any number of contemporary political struggles; struggles over the conditions of transnationality, over gendered and sexualized injustices, over practices of neoimperialism and neocolonialism, over climate refugeeism and other forms of coercive/coerced migration.

For a sense of what form(s) this intensified assemblage might assume, we can look to the work of media artist Ricardo Dominguez, whose projects take up Munster’s call for an ethically engaged technical-aesthetic practice while pushing it firmly in the direction of political struggle by eschewing her taste for the gallery. Instead, Dominguez trains his attention on ostensibly low-tech (though he would surely prefer the term “Mayan” tech [Dominguez, 1999]), disjunctive, and geopolitically ambivalent spaces of display that take shape within and across transnational and migratory zones. It is here that Dominguez deploys what I have elsewhere called in rather remote terms, a “radical poetics of collective action and futurity” (Morgenstern, 2012, para. 4). This poetics, however, is only made operative through the refuse of contemporary capitalism, through those objects that have fallen out of sync with the accelerationist regime of speculative invisible capital.

Dominguez’ 2007 work, Transborder Immigrant Tool, is paradigmatic of this practice. For the project, Dominguez transformed low-cost, aftermarket cellular phones into devices that point Mexican immigrants toward clean water sites and safe houses along the treacherous migration routes that cross the Mexico-US border. In this sense, the Tool makes an accessible and overtly political intervention into the material conditions of transnational survivability. Yet at the same time, it operates within what micha cárdenas (2012) calls a political aesthetics of “crossing,” insofar as it seeks to make legible, through a provisional and asynchronous meeting of body and technology, those bodies-in-transit that do not cohere with such state- or market-located frames of apprehensibility as the citizen or the consumer. More fundamentally, it intervenes in the conceptual, spatial, and temporal parameters that would constrain in advance where a human body can and cannot exist.

Similarly, we might look toward cárdenas’ own work. By thematizing, through an experimental aesthetic approach to wearable technologies, the sorts of lags and crashes so prominent in Munster’s account of digitality and situating them within their own experiences as a transgender/genderqueer member of the Colombian diaspora (implicitly indexing J Halberstam’s work on “the queer art of failure” [2011]), cárdenas makes visceral that which is externalized by “seamless” technical assemblages such as Google Glass: the experience of transness; the condition of being dislocated and undone, of vibrating between any number of frequencies at once, of being suspended in the ethically charged domain between here and there (Butler, 2012). cárdenas’ work issues to their world a defiant declaration, one that is instructive to all those who would seek to intervene in this moment of foreclosure, who would intensify rather than ossify the conditions of cyborg affectivity, who would multiply and electrify the ties that hold us together in coalitions against violence and injustice: “to all the people who have tried to make me choose between man and woman…I choose to be a shape-shifter, a dragon, and a lightwave.”

When Dominguez calls for “a geo-aesthetics that can construct ethical and performative complexities for the new earths to come, that can touch new geographies for new bodies–transbodies with transborder rights” (as quoted in Bird, 2011, para. 22) then, it seems that he is in some measure calling for the sort of intensified cyborg assemblage for which I have argued here. And it is my sense that, if we are to intervene in and finally oppose the more wretched valences of our present conditions, bonded to one another not by the mute, seamless sychronicity of capital but by shared political struggles and robust ethical commitments, it is a call that we would do well to heed.

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To Know That It Will Stay: A Selfish Literary Spark Plug

I write about politics. Or, properly, I attempt to write politically. When I sit down to write, the task is, practically speaking, always the same. I charge myself with disentangling a particular text (used in that vague Art School sense, where a system of government might be ‘read’ along the same lines as a book or a film) by artificially separating it, for the purposes of analysis, from the assumptions on which it rests, the conditions under which it was produced, the ways in which it is interpreted. This is done in the interest of offering some unexpected or perhaps deliberately silenced understanding of just how that ‘text’ works, why it matters, what effects it has on us and the ways in which we think of ourselves as political beings.

I look for gaps, discontinuities, and misconnections, because that’s where politics happens: in negative space. In the yawning vacuum between the way we presume things to be and the many ways in which they might be otherwise, we find the exercise of power, the sliding of power into force, the disintegration of force into trauma and loss, and the organization of trauma and loss into identities and identifications that try and fail to seal the vacuum up once again.

The upshot of this kind of writing is that, given how truly terrible the world is on a regular basis, I rarely find myself in want of topics. I don’t, like many fiction writers and poets I know, regularly panic that I’ve written my last screed. Writing does not feel to me like uranium or fresh water or redwood cedar. It won’t truly run out, dry up, or be mined out of existence by my regular indulgence. There will, miserably, always be some atrocity, some trauma, some violence to be addressed. Even more abundantly, there will always be other political writers setting reprehensible things to paper that I, in a righteous huff, will declare myself responsible for critiquing.

Of course, this is not the case, but such is my thought process.

Despite this grim abundance, however, I have struggled in recent months to commit any of it to print. There’s a reasonable chance that this struggle is simply a function of my increasing despondence at how absolutely dreadful this world is capable of being, indeed how dreadful this world seems to insist upon being. It may be that my heart, my compassion, my patience are simply used up. But there is something more, I think, to my late falling out with words.

After all, I know where they are. I still store them in the same places, keep them on the same shelves as I always have. And their stocks are robust. Like I said, words do not strike me as finite. Take, for example, my unfailing ability to come up with and loudly share large quantities of them when they are most unwelcome and unneeded. The words remain, the same as they always have, the same as they always will. But these days, I find myself ignoring them more than ever, glancing sideways out of cowardice rather than squaring with their expectant gaze. I just don’t love them the way I used to.

And so here I find myself, staring down the most terrifying of all written forms (the personal essay) as a first step to sorting out just where, if anywhere, that affair has wondered, where the spark might have strayed.

Perhaps I have misjudged. Maybe I should have treated my profession like uranium, after all.

Rest assured, though, the present effort will not be some Kerouackian musing on the waifishness of Writing and the ways in which it suffocates Truth (you know…because Kerouac is terrible). Rather it will be more like a Lifetime movie, probably. I can’t look my words in the eye anymore primarily because we’re bored with one another. We’re staring down 40, and I’ve yet to take that trip to Switzerland that I planned with my college roommate all those years ago. We stay because it’s convenient and safe and it feels fine. We look good together at parties and sometimes, if we don’t eat too much at dinner, the sex is great. But we’re sick of each other all the same. We sleep back to back now, telling each other that it’s because of our leg pain and our fear of looking out ground-floor windows at night, respectively.

Which is all to say that we’re embarrassed by one another, my writing and I. Or probably that we’re embarrassed by ourselves in one another’s company. Often, when I review what I write, I find myself cringing less at the grammar and the claims than I do at the imagined sight of my own face as I read. It is this embarrassment, this humiliation that best defines my relationship to writing. What other word can capture those sheepish shrugs that we exchange as we make our way out the door in the morning? That elevator small talk that we use to get through another day?

Because I am a perfectly predictable moody urban something or other, this puts me in mind of a song by someone I admire, and for a description of this sensation, I defer to its lyrics: “I took off my glasses while you were yelling at me once–more than once–so as not to see you see me react. Should have put them, should have put them on again, so I could see you see me sincerely yelling back.”

All the same, I’m not quite willing to give up on it all. There is something that keeps me in this mostly unhappy arrangement with what I produce, with what I often fail to produce. Given that I have no intention of discovering that something via a whirlwind tour of Italy, wherein I learn to let go and love both carbs and my knobby knees in equal measure[1], here is what I can offer in the way of an explanation:

Arundhati Roy, the Indian author and activist, writes words that I love with an unqualified heart. Even on the rare occasion when I find myself moved to quibble with her political analyses, the compulsion withers under the weight of my love for her prose. It is crystalline and insurgent, simple and breathless, sweeping and present. Alice Walker, writing of Arundhati’s book Listening to Grasshoppers, gets it completely correct when she says that “The fierceness with which Arundhati Roy loves humanity moves my heart.” This painful, wrenching, acute love for human life, paired with a righteous and rigorous opposition to those forces and conditions that make human lives unlivable, gives Roy’s words the menacing weight of a properly-swung sledge hammer.

But unlike that blunt instrument, Roy’s writing leaves scars instead of bruises. It doesn’t take much of a tactician, after all, to leave a bruise. A misguided backback on a crowded bus can do that well enough. And that lack of care shows: bruises fade. There’s nothing particular, nothing persistent about a bruise. It’s shallow. It’s like when a contestant on a reality TV show cries: It’s ugly, and sometimes it spreads and discolours into even uglier forms, but it fades all the same.

Scars are different. They’re precise and contained, left by sharpened edges that vanish exactly where and when their utility is to be performed. They never spread, but they stay. They stay and they stay and they stay. No matter how many scarves or gloves or watches you use to distract attention from them, they will stay.

Arundhati’s writing scars me. It populates my skin with awkward, stubborn little baubles; baubles that, like the one on my left knee (the knobbier of the two), I resent for several years before coming to love as my own. They mimic their origins daily: they mark where I have been sewn up and healed, and so anchor the memory of how certain words struck me, landed in me. They are little sutures, little stitchings-up around which I can organize myself and against which I can keep time. The way parents sometimes do when they scratch their children’s height on the inside of a doorframe.

All of this is to say that Arundhati is a tremendous writer who you should 1) start reading immediately in the event that you haven’t already, and 2) listen to on matters of writing as a practice.

In a recent essay called “We Call This Progress,” she says this about why she writes:

Quite often, when you see what is being done to people, it creates rage in you and humiliation if you keep quiet. People ask me why I write, and I say it’s in order to not be humiliated. I don’t write for anything else except to not be humiliated. Every time I write, I keep telling myself that I won’t do it again, but it’s like I can’t contain it inside my body; I write, and it’s a relief.

As I have already said, I am embarrassed, often and increasingly so, by my relationship with words and how I use them. I am reasonably humiliated, for example, by the fact that not 700 words ago, I quoted extensively from a Fiona Apple song in my very serious essay about writing and humiliation.

I am, like Roy and people at Fiona Apple concerts, terrified of silence and the humiliation that usually comes after. As such, every time I write, I constantly rehearse a kind of perverse rosary in which I convince myself that what I am doing is necessary and, while not exactly heroic, is also not exactly nothing: “This is important. This needs to be said. There is a silence here that must be broken. This blog post, which will be read by 29 people and earn me the title of Hamas apologist[2], will be a force.”

Of course, I know this to be mostly untrue. With the notable exceptions of Malcolm Gladwell and anyone who has ever written a book about a road trip, writers are usually acutely aware of the fact that what they do is basically frivolous.

With this in mind, the function of my rosary is two-fold: it is 1) an act of self-defense that I use to shore myself up against my own frivolity, and 2) it is a bulwark against the humiliation that I would experience if, at some point in the future, it were revealed that when given the option between writing (not exactly nothing) and staying silent (exactly nothing), I had chosen the latter.

But what happens when the bulwark against embarrassment is itself an increasing embarrassment? I write out of self-defense, out of the fear of being humiliated, but find myself no less humiliated when I look upon what I’ve wrought. It always turns out as a tangle of words that get lost in themselves, like moody teenagers, dragged around by sentences that don’t care because they have work to do. It all leads to some climactic fight between the two where very little is resolved, but at least someone usually cries. And in Lifetime movies, that’s a good enough reason to fade to black.

In philosophy, by the way, this is called Dialectics.

Either way, when I write, I find myself not relieved but embarrassed all over again. Perhaps it’s because what I string together seems to me so obviously meant to absolve myself of culpability, to spare myself the discomfort of not having taken a side when push finally comes to shove. Or perhaps I’m embarrassed that this, of all things, is my strategy in the first place. Maybe I’m embarrassed at having made the wrong decision with respect to coping strategies to begin with

After all, some pick exercise, some pick the fine arts, others pick protest, and still others pick landscaping. But me…I picked writing. And not just writing, but political writing, which for those who don’t indulge, is a world made up of two kinds of people: those who don’t know what they’re talking about, and those who know even less, but are better at faking it and usually have better hair. In having made such a choice, I feel vaguely like the worst kind of contestant on The Price is Right. I’m that idiot who tries too hard to listen to too many people in the audience at once, panics, and completely forgets that he has the option of saying “four hundred and one dollars, Bob.”

So why do I stay? Without the relief that Roy finds in words, it seems senseless to keep this up. After all, it’s no way to make a living. It’s not even a way to live a life.

After all this: I stay, probably, for the scars. For the little marks that my humiliation leaves on me that I will hate for several years then return to with a reluctant smile; or, minimally, with a tolerance that exceeds tolerance, a tolerance that isn’t exactly warmth but isn’t exactly nothing, either. I stay for the chance, amid the rewrites, the uncertainty, and the sting that comes with the first blush of a new embarrassment, to trace the weird contours of the figures that will persist somewhere, somehow.

I stay because the best gift I ever got was a book, an eighth or ninth-hand copy of Querelle of Brest by Jean Genet, which a friend gave to me for a birthday that I no longer remember.

That book, and the clumsy, unstable, often unpleasant circumstances in which I inherited it, remain a lump in my throat. I recall being incapable of making the text perform as either pure fantasy or pure documentary. I could push it into no service, move it towards no end. Genet’s searing prose left me as misty as the dark ports-of-call through which his swarthy sailors lurch. I devoured the story but found that it failed miserably the instant I attempted to “put it to use,” either as escapist fiction or didactic parable.

Despite my best efforts, it became the unexpected centre around which a desperate, sometimes ugly, frequently boozy, oddly caring moment of my life could be organized. It gave shape, if not dimension, to a time that I’m glad I still recall, and hope to always recall, one that I hope will not dislodge. That is to say, it became a scar. It became one of those discontinuous little marks that anchor and re-anchor a life, this life, otherwise wrapped up in its ludicrous circuits of vanity, self-doubt, and humiliation.

I feel a compulsive need to enact these kinds of scars; to create stubborn knots that have no names–or at least names that I can’t speak–but that name themselves in the demands they issue to me (and with any luck, to others): to allow myself to come up short and be always incomplete; to remember that this body can be marked by the world, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better; to know that I can return to the places where those marks reside–more or less embarrassed at their presence, more or less willing to be at home with them–and they will still be there; to know that this return will never be easy, that it will always be frivolous. But to know that it will stay.


[1] There are, as I have already mentioned, certain similarities between how I live and how people live in Lifetime-style movies. But there is a limit to those similarities. That limit is called Eat, Pray, Love (though the actual knobbiness of my knees is truly a sight to behold).

[2] This is true and recent.