Race, Perception, and the Institutionalization of Networks

Posted: May 13, 2008 in Ecology of Sensation, Method, Nietzsche, Perception, Race

The aim then, again, to begin again as if at the beginning again. Patricia Clough recently asked me what my object is?

I told her I wanted to understand the relationship between the rise of Barak Obama and Osama bin Laden. That’s not really of very great interest. The relation I want to get at is the form of discursive racialization that characterizes the perception of these two prominent men (of color?). So that racialization is seen as a capturing of an entire ecology of sensation–understood as both unitary and multiple at once–in other words, is there some resonance in Obama and Osama other than the sound of their names? And what do we make of this weird resonance in their last and first names? 

This is an empirical question–like Jakobson’s analysis of the mantra “I like Ike.” Clearly, some break down in terms of sounds and their implications for affective response is necessary. That would be one line of inquiry, and again some form of empirical analysis would be necessary to some degree. 

So let’s say for a moment that the body is organized by its participation in ecologies of sensation that find a more or less stable pattern of development. I say more or less because we are defining stability here to be a relatively enduring, but essentially transient, moment in the flux (nested timscales) of becoming. Let us say, then, if perception has a past that its future is a matter of the changing capacities and functions of this resonant (correlated populations) unity. 

I was thinking today of a question I got recently, and couldn’t really answer, partly because I got flustered at the affect of the speaker, and partly because I hadn’t thought about this question for some time. But it must be answered: what is the relationship of institutional practices to ecologies of sensation? This is a big and serious question, and I will try to answer it as fully as I can in the entries that follow. As we shall see what is at stake is thinking institutionally about what no longer has the form of what was assumed to be an institution–toward an analysis of media as processual.  

In an articles entitled, “Organised Networks Institutionalise to give Mobile Information a Strategic Potential” (http://www.noemalab.org/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/pdf/rossiter_networks.pdf), Ned Rossiter put this relation between network dynamics (“networks that are immanent to the Internet – the primary socio-technical architecture that enables the mobility of data within a logic of informationalism”) and institutional form thus: “This paper is interested in how networks using ICTs as their primary mode  of organisation can be considered as new institutional forms. The paper suggests that organised networks are emergent socio-technical forms that arise from the limits of both tactical media and more traditional institutional structures and architectonic forms. Organised networks are peculiar for the ways in which they address problems situated within the media form itself. The organised network is thus one whose socio-technical relations are immanent to, rather than supplements of, communications media. The paper argues that the problematics of scale and sustainability are the two key challenges faced by various forms of networks. The organised network is distinct for the ways in which it has managed to address such problematics in order to imbue informational relations with a strategic potential” (2). 

Rossiter’s article is salutary in a number of respects. The deep cynicism that informs the capitalist appropriation of network technologies is impossible to ignore today: “Governments have found that the network refrain appeals to their neoliberal sensibilities, which search for new rhetorics to substitute the elimination of state infrastructures with the logic of individualised selfformation within Third Way style networks of ‘social capital.’ Research committees at university and national levels see networks as offering the latest promise of an economic utopia in which research practice synchronically models the dynamic movement of finance capital, yet so often the outcomes of research ventures are based upon the reproduction of pre-existing research clusters and the maintenance of their hegemony for institutions and individuals with ambitions of legitimacy within the prevailing doxas. Telcos and cable TV “providers” revel in their capacity to flaunt a communications system that is not so much a network but a heterogenous mass of audiences-consumers-users connected by the content and services of private media oligopolies. Activists pursue techniques of simultaneous disaggregation and consolidation via online organisation in their efforts to mobilise opposition and actions in the form of mutable affinities against the corporatisation of everyday life. The US military-entertainment complex enlists strategies of organised distribution of troops and weaponry on battlefields defined by unpredictability and chaos, while maintaining the spectacle of control across the vectors of news media. The standing reserve of human misery sweeps up the remains of daily horror” (3). 

What Rossiter seems removed from in these concerns is a specific modality to understand processual media (what I call media assemblages). “’Immanence’ has been a key metaphor to describe the logic of informationalisation (see Rossiter, 2004). Such a word can also be used to describe networks. To put it in a nutshell, the technics of networks can be described as thus: if you can sketch a diagram of relations in which connections are ‘external to their terms’ (Deleuze), then you get a picture of a network model. Whatever the peculiarities the network refrain may take, there’s a predominant tendency to overlook the ways in which networks are produced by regimes of power, economies of desire and the restless rhythms of global capital. How, I wonder, might the antagonisms peculiar to the varied and more often than not incommensurate political situations of informationality be formulated in terms of a political theory of networks? A processual model of media theory inquires into the movement between the conditions of possibility and that which has emerged within the grid of signs, codes and meanings – or what Deleuze understands as the immanent relationship between the plane of consistency and the plane of organisation. How might the politics of networks as they operate within informationalised institutional settings be understood in terms of a processual democracy? Conditions of possibility are different in kind from that which comes to be conditioned. There is no resemblance or homology between the two. External forces are not grids whose stabilising capacity assures the temporary intelligibility of a problematic as it coalesces within a specific situation. Yet despite these dissonances, networks are defined by – perhaps more than anything – their organisation of relations between actors, information, practices, interests and socio-technical systems. The relations between these terms may manifest at an entirely local level, or they may traverse a range of scales, from the local to the national to the regional to the global. Whatever the scale may be, these fields of association are the scene of politics and, once they are located within institutional settings, are the basis of democracy in all its variations. This isn’t to say that in and of themselves these components of networks somehow automatically result in democracy. But it is to suggest that the relationship between institutions and the sociopolitical habitus of the state continues to be a primary influence in conditioning the possibility of democratic polities” (4).

I repeat, there is much here that’s spot on, and I have no quibble with most of this perspective, especially as I believe Rossiter and I share a general genealogy of post-marxist anti-imperialism (Fanon, Said, Amin, Cabral, Laclau-Mouffe, S. Hall, Gibson-Graham, G. Spivak–my list, not his). It boils down to this for Rossiter: are the powers of creation–the ability to break globally and locally sensorimotor circuits and their organization of stupidity, and refunction their forces in new assemblages of desire and matter–enabled in and through networks, or does creation need a thought of the outside, what remains outside (the peasants, e.g.) even though this discrete outside provides the material sustenance for self-consolidation?

The answer for Rossiter seems to lie in processual democracy. I certainly agree that what is at stake is creation (breaking through the cliche, exploiting the powers of the false), but I believe the term democracy is a fetish, and rather than mire oneself in that Western paleonymy, we might do well to post concretely what exactly is taking place in disparate parts of the world in terms of the self-organizing capacities of networks. 

What would it mean to take sensation as a central modality of network connectivity, as constitutive of their enduring processes? The processes before the grid(lock) of signs, codes and meanings (see Massumi, Introduction, Parables)? In other words, how is it that the critique of processual media would leave behind the durations of the body? This is not a plea for a return to the ecstasy of multiplicity, but to see in capital two forms of multiplicity that do not resemble or oppose each other: quality/intensity/duration and quantity/space/segmentation. Capital feeds on both, combining their forces at the synergy point of profitable creativity. 

“What I have discussed elsewhere as a processual media theory (Rossiter, 2003a) is derived from research in cybernetics, biology and systems theory that is interested in information as it relates to the problem of calculation, control and determination in order to enhance efficiency. The primary question for first-order cybernetics was how to impose stability and order over the entropic tendencies of information, as witnessed, for example within biological systems and their transmission of DNA code or radio signals and their interference by “noise”. The preoccupation with efficiency in first-order cybernetics denies the relational character of communication. Second-order cybernetics saw the necessity of not banishing noise from the system, but establishing a balance between order and disorder: noise or feedback was “rehabilitated” as a “virtue” of communication within a system (Mattelart and Matterlart, 1992: 45). Within anthropology, for example, the observer impacts upon that which is observed and changes what might otherwise have transpired in the course of the event, had the observer not been a part of the system. Second-order cybernetics and systems theory thus adopts a reflexive understanding of the relationship between observer and observed. Feedback – what Bateson termed the ‘difference that makes a difference’ – is acknowledged as fundamental to the functioning of the system. Moreover, communication is more properly understood as not a unilinear channel of transmission, but rather a non-linear system of relations. Corresponding with this conceptual development is a shift from an instrumental view of communication to an understanding of communication as a social system” (Rossiter 6).

Here then is a brief and excellent summary of the informational entropy question as it developed historically in cybernetics. 

“The challenge for a politically active networked culture is to make strategic use of new communications media in order to create new institutions of possibility. Such socio-technical formations will take on the characteristics of organised networks – distributive, non-linear, situated, project-based – in order to create self-sustaining media-ecologies that are simply not on the map of established political and cultural institutions. As Gary Genosko writes, ‘the real task is to find the institutional means to incarnate new modes of subjectification while simultaneously avoiding the slide into bureaucratic sclerosis’. Such a view also augurs well for the life of networks as they subsist within the political logic of informationality that is constituted by the force of the outside” (7).

Citing the Delhi-based Serai group as an example, Rossiter argues: “I would argue that it’s time to make a return to and reinvestment in strategic concepts, practices and techniques of organisation. Let’s stop the obsession with tactics as the modus operandi of radical critique, most particularly in the gross parodies of Certeau one finds in US-style cultural studies. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that the time of tactical media is over. Clearly, tactical media play a fundamental role in contributing to the formation of radical media cultures and new social relations. What I’m interested in addressing is the “scalability crisis” that Lovink and Schneider refer to. If one starts with the principle that concepts and practices are immanent to prevailing media forms, and not somehow separate from them, it follows that with the mainstream purchase of new media forms such as the Internet come new ways in which relations of production, distribution and consumption are organised. An equivalence can be found in the shift from centralised Fordist modes of production to decentralised post-Fordist modes of flexible accumulation. Strategies within the spatio-temporal peculiarities of the Internet are different from strategies as they operate within broadcast communications media. The latter ultimately conceives the “audience-as-consumer” as the end point in the food-chain of media production, whereas the former enable the “user” to have the capacity to sample, modify, repurpose and redirect the social life of the semiotic object. Moreover, there are going to be new ways in which institutions develop in relation to Internet based media culture. How such institutions of organised networks actually develop in order to obtain a degree of sustainability and longevity that has typically escaped the endeavours of tactical media is something that is only beginning to become visible” (9).


Rossiter concludes: “In order for tactical media and list cultures to organise as networks that have multiple institutional capacities, there has to be – first and foremost – a will, passion and commitment to invention. There has to be a desire for socio-technical change and transformation. And there needs to be a curiosity and instinct for survival to shift finance capital to places, people, networks and activities that hitherto have been invisible. The combination of these forces mobilises information in ways that hold an ethico-aesthetic capacity to create new institutional forms that persist over time and address the spectrum of socio-political antagonisms of information societies in a situated fashion.”

To return to the question of race and perception: if a resonant series of sensory-motor circuits could be a provisional definition of an ecology of sensation, we must go back to Nietzsche’s observation:

“What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing! The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors. To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one.”

That’s nice, just like him. So first metaphor and second: in what sense is racialization a metaphorization and in what sense does it form a primary stimulus? In other words, at what level does race no longer function primarily in language and return thought to the incipience of sensation and the ecologies in which it takes on its peculiar ontogenesis? This would be a properly ontological question, a properly ecological question. Provided the “proper” leaves the circuit of propriation. 

So at what point does race emerge in the perceptual flux of sensation? We know today the objection: race is a social construct. It is perhaps the foremost of social constructs, with a representational history both enabling and nefarious, both black and white, both unjust and refunctioned. 

What can we say to the partisans of this view of race? First simply a caution: race is complex. As a concept it has a complexity all its own, as a perception it has a complexity all its own, and one should be wary of reducing the one to the other. First metaphor, second metaphor. This is not to say that there is a truth of race. Rather it has a history, it is nothing but historical. But that history is and will be non-linear, patterned but unpredictable. 

But I have to break off at this point: what would it mean to turn “patterned and unpredictable” into a mantra? In Suzuki’s Zen there is great emphasis placed on breathing, as the throat is a swinging door separating two infinities, the one of the world, and the one of body/spirit (both two and one). But Suzuki also speaks beautifully of varying your practice, bowing, making bread, dhyan, listening to the teacher’s sermon, etc. Chanting is never mentioned, but it is simply another practice, nothing special as he says. 

So we shouldn’t be afraid of mantras, remember Jeff Goldbloom in Annie Hall after all! In any case, patterned and unpredictable, although easily maligned as a meaningless catch phrase of a new academic trend, is in fact as old as, well, let’s just say Bergson. 


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