Brian Massumi- Ontopower

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday March 11th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.

Preemptive Logic

The Bush administration unfurled the beginning of a new military and political strategy, that of preemptive logic. This doctrine of attacking the enemy before it has a chance to strike has far wide ranging consequences. The idea has taken a life of its own and has become it’s own self-perpetuating thought, which Massumi calls an operative logic. Preemption is a replacement for the old Cold War operative logic: deterrence.

Like preemption, deterrence takes a future case as its present effect. The future cause- potential nuclear war- has a present act: you build a nuclear arsenal that could potentially destroy you and the enemy does the same, increasing the immediate threat of a future danger. This is the logic behind mutually assured destruction. MAD creates an equilibrium, as one side builds their arsenal so does the other and the system becomes self-propelling. Deterrence leads to a dynamic equilibrium, and the causes suddenly produce a different effect: an arms race. This arms race is self-causing, the logic of deterrence working as a self-closed loop. 

Deterrence has a clear enemy which is equal in power and still retains a humanistic side, or at least is not insane nor suicidal. But enter the terrorists: a hidden enemy, one that is weaker than the Western powers and does not seem to have that human impulse of self-preservation. Deterrence no longer works, and that is where preemption comes in. The military is transformed. A branch of it is made smaller and works on the slightest of perception in order to flush out the terrorists before they get to attack. It in effect is what Massumi calls “becoming-terrorist,” and a different system calls for a different logic. Preemptive logic works on a threat that is perpetually there, but is not known- Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown”. “Preemption is when futurity of unspecified threat is affectively held in the present in a perpetual state of potential emergency, so that a movement of actualization may be triggered that is not only self-propelling but also effectively, indefinitely, ontologically productive, because it works from,  virtual cause whose potential no single actualization exhausts.” And so as a logic that proliferates and changes, it takes on many forms like the increase of executive powers in the person of the president and commander-in-chief. The war is the “permanent state of emergency” as Walter Benjamin once said.

The logic of preemption has implications not just for the military, but politics and society as a whole. In 2004 when Bush was up for re-election, he addressed the lack of weapons of mass destruction by arguing that if Saddam had weapons, he would have used them: “in the past there was a future threat.” The threat and menace felt very real, and fear is the anticipatory present of this threatening future. And this future is open, forever open. This justifies preemptive action. Any preemptive action towards a potential threat is always legitimated by the affective fact of fear. The logic is circular because “the logic of affectively legitimated fact is in the conditional: Bush did what he did because Saddam could have done what he didn’t do.” If Saddam in the future could have acquired weapons of mass destruction he would have used them, a double conditional.

In 2005, things seem to be going bad for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He argued that present Iraq is full of terrorists. At the time of the invasion, Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq despite what the administration said, but after the invasion it was, meaning- in double conditional logic- they always could have been there, and now they were, so the invasion was right. “The could have/would have logic works both ways. If the threat does not materialize, it still always would have if it could have. If on the other hand the threat does materialize, then it just goes to show that the future potential for what happened had really been there in the past.” The preemptive action ended up causing what it aimed at preempting.

“Proposition: Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a non-linear time operating recursively between present and future, preemptive logic is not subject to the rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attitude an effective reality to futurity.”

Around the same time, a Montreal airport was shut down because of a potential anthrax threat. That the substance could have been anthrax triggered a series of actions as if it were: enter the military, helicopter forces, news alert headlines, all of it. Even when the white powder turned out to be flour, it was still referred to as a “toxic substance alert.” It could have been toxic, so it’s a toxic substance alert. The alert highlights what the threat could have been, not what it was and so the event is always tainted with a feeling of threat. “Proposition: Threat is capable of overlaying its own conditional determination upon an objective situation through the mechanism of alarm. The two determinations, threatening and objective, co exist. However, the threat-determined would-be and could-be takes public precedence due to its operating in the more compelling future-oriented and affective register. This gives it superior political presence and potential.” The fake anthrax caused real increase in security.

And what is the mechanism of this feeling of threat?

The Affect of Fear

In 2002 the Bush administration released the color coded terror alert system, which goes form low alert to severe. “Safe” isn’t even an option. The alert system calibrates on the population’s fear, playing on them with affective modulation. It tweaks on the population’s nervous system and their affection worked in unison, though not necessarily in the same way. That’s because it’s not a matter of identification or imitation: after all, the spectrum gives no form to imitate. Rather the hues work on the intensity of the emotions, bypassing cognition and working directly on the body. Since each body reacts according to its own acquired patterns of responses, the result of this affect is hard to predict or control. Rather the color shift immediately goes at a person’s pre-subjective level which activates the predisposition or tendency that the body might have. “Without proof, without persuasion, at the limit even without argument, government image production could trigger (re)action.” Because the affects produced in immediacy cannot be predicted, especially given social and cultural diversity, the role of proof, persuasion, argument-which addresses the subject- fails in front of the pre-subjective activation power of affect.

When government deals with threats, the object is formless, looming and  unseen. The only form they have is a time-form: futurity. Threat and fear are then intertwined, since fear is triggered by threat, but threat is only threatening if fear exists. As William James argued, fear compels the body to action before the emotion is consciously felt, and threat is the intensity of that experience without any content. Fear is the immanence of experience. After the initial startle the body begins to perceive, reflect, and recollect- at that point emotion and affect diverge. Once fear becomes phenomenal, it can have an object. Narrating or recounting the fear further separates from the original intensity.

The anticipation of a sensation can cause that sensation. Quoting William James: “When an ideal emotion seems to precede the bodily symptoms, it is often nothing but a representation of the symptoms themselves. One who has already fainted at the sight of blood many witness the preparations for a surgical operation with uncontrollable heart-sinking and anxiety. He anticipates certain feelings, and the anticipation precipitates their arrival” (James 983, 177). What the alert system does is keep people in constant anticipation of fear, fear itself becomes the threat. Fear can be self-caused, even without external threat to trigger it. It’s an all encompassing affective atmosphere. Fear may be contained, but fear always exceeds its containment and will always stay as a mood. “Fear, in a quasi-causal relation to itself, has become redundantly self-sufficient- an autonomous force of existence. It has become ontogenic: an ontopower.” Just like the arms race was how deterrence was able to perpetuate itself, threat is the means in which preemption persists.

CS Pierce calls indication or indexes things that “act on the nerves of a person and force his attention” because they “show something about things, on account of their being physically connected to them,” yet they “assert nothing.” An example is a fire alarm. The alarm itself has asserted nothing, yet it still startles and forces attention, becoming an experience even if there is no actual fire. Awakening to the possible threat of the fire is more important than fire. The body is activated into the transitional state of experience, fire or not.

What if the alarm works on preemptive logic, and sounds for all the fires yet to come? Then the innerviating effect of the alarm is always there, always right.

According to Pierce, the effects of the sign on the body is the threshold between active and passive. There is a moment of pure affect collectively felt. The terror alert system is that alarm constantly reminding you that fires could happen, and acts as if they always are.

What Next?

Massumi begins his final chapter mentioning how the potential for avian flu is the news headline, and gives an observation: “We live in times when what has not happened qualifies as news.” Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, that does not exhaust future threats. There is always the nagging feeling that what comes next might be even worse. “The uncertainty of the potential next is never consumed in any given event. There is always a remainder of uncertainty, an unconsummated surplus of danger. The present is shadowed by a remaindered surplus of indeterminate potential. For a next event running forward back to the future self-renewing.”Even if the threat is nonexistent, it is very real.

Operative logic is a process that produces more of itself. It’s an impersonal will-to-power which is always in interaction with other operational logics. Signs are needed to carry on an analysis of the never-fully-activated operational logic. “To understand preemptive power as an operative logic it is necessary to be able to express its productive process of becoming as a semiosis. Since preemption’s production of being in becoming pivots on affect as a felt quality, the pertinent theory of signs would have to be grounded first and foremost in a metaphysics of feeling.”

Massumi hints at possible alternatives to the present state throughout the book. He suggests that new operatives will need to be found, and new affects to replace fear. It is a matter of fighting operative logic with operative logic, affect with affect.

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