When is a protest not a protest?…When it’s Critical Mass

A bike blog post on The Guardian concerning the trial of 9 cyclists prosecuted after last summer’s Olympic Games Critical Mass.

The case seemingly revolved around the definition of protest, and whether the ill-fated ride constituted a protest event or not. The London Metropolitan Police thought it did. Critical Mass participants, arguably, did not. It is described by the author of this piece as an ‘explicitly apolitical social event’.

Critical Mass rides are patently not ‘explicitly apolitical social events’ but neither are they hotbeds of wanton anarchy either. Unfortunately and inevitably, they seem to have been drawn into debating whether or not it constituted a political event in order to contend the London Met’s deployment of section 12 of the Public Order Act (“to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”).

‘Serious disruption’ is obviously a supremely subjective term. Serious public disorder and criminal damage maybe less so. But in truth, this section is readily mobilised if a “senior police officer…reasonably believes” disorder, damage disruption or intimidation is to take place.

So no matter how hard you argue to the contrary, if the senior officer has reasonable belief – and really, that’s no great burden of proof – whatever event, procession, march or ‘apolitical’ bike ride is going to be halted and offending participants arrested. Spinning them as harmless social events won’t quite cut it, despite the obvious injustice.

Deleuze, Desire, Strategy and Revolution

A two part interview with Andrew Robinson at the New Left Project on Deleuze, desire, political strategy and revolution (Part 1 and Part 2).

A rather handy reading list of some relevant original works (Societies of Control), standalone versions of 1000 Plateaus chapters (Rhizomes, Nomadology), secondary analysis (on utopia, anarchism, fear etc.), and video lectures is at the end of the second part. Although I would add work by Nicholas Tampio and Thomas Nail to the list too.

There’s a section from Galloway’s The Interface Effect (2012) that is more than appropriate to the questions posed to Robinson in the second part. He categorizes the work of Deleuze as combining an ‘aesthetic of coherence with a politics of incoherence’ (p. 49). This is what Galloway calls a poetic regime of signification (or mode of operation). He suggests he elevates the art of philosophy over other concerns. The other concern that Galloway is primarily talking about is politics, political alignment and political strategy. One of the questions Robinson faces is ‘[w]hat is the Deleuzian model of political organization?’ The answer he provides tallies with what Galloway says, that Deleuze’s political mode is incoherent:

Eyal Weizman has written of the ways in which the Israeli Defense Forces have deployed the teachings of Deleuze and Felix Guattari in the field of battle. This speaks not to a corruption of the thought of Deleuze and Guattari but to the very receptivity of the work to a variety of political implementations (that is, to its “incoherence”). (p. 50)

He goes on to suggest that Deleuze’s work is ‘open source’ (p. 50) in the same way open source software does not preclude appropriation. Deleuze’s work does not intrinsically suppose a political project, let alone an emancipatory and progressive one. Moreover, from the other side, that appropriation of rhizomatic concepts, the construction of non-hierarchical formations and other Deleuzian strategies are necessarily automatic paths to freedom. There are theoretical and methodological dangers in supposing either. These are normative judgements on an otherwise non-aligned and incoherent Deleuze.

Mengele’s Skull

I posted back in August about Keenan and Weizman’s upcoming Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics and have now got round to reading it. Firstly, it’s a small and short book with a fair number of colour images. It is these pictures that are critical to Keenan and Weizman’s narrative. Although I don’t want to spoil it for those who maybe haven’t had the chance to read it (an earlier version can be found in Cabinet here), or have not been acquainted with the Forensic Architecture project more broadly, I do still want to say a few things.

The exhumation of (supposedly) Josef Mengele’s body inaugurated (page 11) a rather unique form of war criminal investigation. One different to that of either the testimony of the witness (of which Adolf Eichmann was sentenced under), or that of the textual document that many traditional criminal investigations are centred upon (Nuremberg Trials). That of the forensic.

Each type of investigation, say Keenan and Weizman, operates in a particular space or ‘forum’. Or better still (as the space does not pre-exist it’s operation) is constructed through a set of investigative performances, where disputed and otherwise fractious entities (human/non-human; scientist/skull) are brought together for a particular purpose. In this case, an inversion of the perhaps now standard CSI approach; an interrogation of the skeleton with different presumptions and inverse purpose.

It was not a case of asking the skeleton “how did you die?”, but – with the identity of the person in question: “who are you?” (17-18). As Keenan and Weizman point out, “the Mengele investigation was conducted in much the same way as a missing persons investigation would be” (19). Perhaps ironically, the many people who were ‘forcefully disappeared’ by dictatorial forces in South American during the 1970s were re-identified using the very same techniques employed during the Mengele investigation. In doing so, this ‘methodological proximity’ helped to move such investigation “beyond the ethical categories of victim and perpetrator” (61), and establish it firmly within a material forum (with identity the only aim).

The success of the Mengele investigation was in many ways down to German forensic scientist Richard Helmer, who had developed a technique he called ‘electronic visual mixing’. In essence, an apparatus whereby Helmer could superimpose an image of the individual (Mengele) onto a clay cast (Mengele’s skull) and work a video camera between the two to establish a match between photo and cast. These image overlays could be produced in different splits so as to produce a rather haunting image of the skull cast complete with pictorial facial features from the photograph (even with Mengele’s felt hat perched upon it). In doing so, Helmer was able to persuade, quite decisively, many of the other forensic scientists and anthropologists involved in the investigation. Moreover, it was this process that also persuaded the many other victims, witnesses, state officials and media personnel eager to hear of the results of the investigation. This analytical method served as a foundational moment in forensic anthropology, and the construction of a faithful ally in the pursuit of now-dead war criminals (the skeletal object or ‘super-subject’ as a truthful witness[66]), whom in death had escaped the legal, juridical, bodily and political repercussions of their crimes.

But of course, this notion of the truthful ‘super-subject’ has something of a twist. Whilst one of the most prominent members of the Mengele investigation, Clyde Snow, said that “[b]ones make good witnesses” (quoted on 66) – it is indeed this construction of the truthful object that forms the most crucial point of this event. Snow, Helmer and all the other scientists were present to do one thing: persuade. It was up to them to persuade all relevant parties as to their level of doubt. Previous to the introduction of Helmer’s techniques, the doubt, arguably, would have been much higher. How would the skeleton otherwise have been interrogated? If they had not succeeded in persuading all parties how would forensic anthropology look now? Would forensic anthropology even exist? Moreover, how would the witness and textual investigations fare considering this apparent failure in a new investigatory technique? As Keenan and Weizman say:

Something which was not perceivable, which did not count, made its way into the domain of evidence and judgement, and in doing so had to alter the stage on which it appeared. (68)

Helmer’s ‘electronic visual mixing’ not only transformed the field of forensic science/anthropology, but also radically changed the shape of war crimes fora. The assignation of the bones of Mengele with an agential – and legal – force the scientists in the Mengele investigation allowed them, as Snow says above, ‘to speak’. Not only a political act of expanding such fora to include the otherwise non-human but also a transformation of the protocol, discourse and procedure within. Alongside the witness and the textual document stood the object; imbued with all the power to speak (or, more correctly, be spoken for), to be discussed and to be disputed.

Stiegler interviewed by O’Gorman

In Configurations 18 (3) Fall (2010). There’s a mention of Latour within:

Latour is a high-ranking philosophy professor [agrégé de philosophie], a philosopher, but he is in a state of philosophical denial [une dénégation philosophique]. For example, he will not put up with phenomenology, he will not bear transcendental questions, etcetera. He asserts an empiricism, an associationism, which is certainly something very efficient and very fruitful. But at the same time, I always have the impression, because of this denial, that there is a certain blindness, a certain naïveté even, in Latour’s reasoning process, a certain cynicism. (463-464)

Stiegler finds interest in Latour’s focus on the ‘banal “thingness” of the thing’ (464) that he thinks philosophy has had a tendency to pass by. Ultimately though it seems he’s a little put off by Latour’s distaste for phenomenology and transcendentalism that I think Stiegler still sees as being the experiential seeds of life (albeit an already technical one). Latour believes this is a narrowing of the world to mere human experience (whether or not this is a technical one). Presumably, then, Latour and Stiegler are going to contest whether the ‘thingness’ of the thing is separate from our conception of it – or whether the human subject’s access to the thing is thus the only way to conceive of the thing. Latour doesn’t think so; Stiegler does (?).

In another passage he discusses Simondon and his theory of individuation:

He shows that psychic individuation is never purely psychic; it is always already social. I believe that if psychic individuation is always already collective, it is because it is also a technical individuation. I have tried to show, drawing on Simondon, that psychic individuation attains social individuation by means of technical individuation, and by interiorizing technical individuation. And this is what I call the phenomenon of transindividuation—it’s a phenomenon of selection. (466)

It’s this psychic as collective that’s so important to Stiegler’s (political) project. Moreover, it’s that the psychic individuation as already collective individuation is courtesy of/via technical individuation that enables Stiegler to focus on the technicity of human life and it’s wiring through technical objects. Again though I think Stiegler has a tendency to not only downplay the autonomy of technical objects but also to assume a uni-directional role (technology writing/scripting/defining humans). His enduring aim is to re-evaluate the constitution of humanity through technology, and that as memory aids, technical objects structure human life from within that life (or, ‘stabilizes a repetition’ – 462).

Latour’s (1996 – Aramis) notion of ‘quasi-objects’ moves two degrees beyond Stiegler, I think. Not just that this is a bi-directional process (technology writing/scripting/defining humans and humans w/s/d technology) like a game of table tennis, but that this is an already human-technical collective/assemblage (albeit with kernels of human and object withdrawn – like Graham Harman might suggest). Thus I think Stiegler doesn’t pay enough attention to the ‘event’. That is, the instances, moments or situations in which this techno-human life is played out, when one can maybe pull apart, interrogate, unravel etc. the human and non-human – however difficult this may prove. Rather, he too quickly assumes a generalized ‘we have always been technical’ thesis.

I’m going to read another interview with Stiegler in Theory, Culture & Society tomorrow and will go through ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon’ (2012) at Culture Machine too.  I’ll post if anything sparks my interest.


Halsall Interviews Latour

There is a new issue of Society and Space hot off the press which, amongst other things (including a heart-warming set of tributes to the late Neil Smith) includes a short interview with Bruno Latour as conducted by Francis Halsall. It’s mainly on art and his ongoing Modes of Existence project. Although it does turn nicely into a discussion of the Enlightenment and the Gaia hypothesis, which is the subject of his upcoming Gifford Lecture Series at University of Edinburgh, outlined below:

Facing Gaia. A new inquiry into Natural Religion

There could be no better theme for a lecture series on natural religion than that of Gaia, this puzzling figure that has emerged recently in public discourse from Earth science as well as from many activist and spiritual movements. The problem is that the expression of “natural religion” is somewhat of a pleonasm, since Western definitions of nature borrow so much from theology. The set of lectures attempts to decipher the face of Gaia in order to redistribute the notions that have been packed too tightly into the composite notion of ‘’natural religion’’.

There will be 6 lectures in total from 18 February – 28 February 2012. The details of which can be found in this publicity PDF.