Adventures in Jutland

Ghosted Publics and Unacknowledged Collectivities

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[Excerpted from (and somewhat buried in) “On Not Performing: the third enclosure and fractal neofeudal fantasies” and developing ideas from this earlier piece]

… Another possible series of responses to the third enclosure and fractal neofeudalism might be found in what I call “ghosted publics” and “unacknowledged collectivity”. These refuse, rout around, rather than court or demand, systemic recognition and alignments (not that I am against recognition when it seems strategically valuable). I will suggest that ghosted publics and unacknowledged collectivity evade forms of “in-fact-never-the-recognition-that-was-promised”, predicated on the now multiple systems of performance and audits and so on. Subsequently, a ghosted public or unacknowledged collective might unfold collective life differently, working toward affirming the “more than given”, re-enabling a freer production of subjectivity.

“Ghosted publics” are acts of community—often media-assisted—that are simultaneously in and not in the public sphere (see also Murphie 2008b). They are translucent ‘figures’ of direct relationality and immediate communing that by-pass certified public acts, or regulated “communications” of performance recognised by established powers. From the point of view of established systems they are both present and absent, precisely because, although they are real, they do not fit, or even desire or struggle to obtain, standard forms of recognition. This makes them hard to see. They nevertheless haunt and trouble both mainstream media events (early amateur radio is a great example but so is a reading group, or more famously, in a complicated way, Wikileaks). They also haunt mainstream, publicly “certified” models of, and controls over thinking processes, affective intensities, and the production of subjectivity. Like ghosts that one only thinks one might feel, perhaps with an unexpected chill, ghosted publics disrupt and trouble the given without necessarily “appearing”.

If then, ghosted publics are precisely those events of community that evade the desired stability and established models of a recognised “public”, then they evade a “public” that has become the central defining problem of much of traditional media events, media theory and media disciplines for a hundred years. In the process they suggest a different understanding of thinking processes, one in which thought is not taken to consist of neat and recognisable forms of communication either predictably or perhaps “fractally” spread through the social. They certainly suggest something much more contingent than inputs and outputs, or symbolic processing according to a stable system.

Throughout the 20th century there has always been a series of ghosted publics moving through the more acknowledged and controlled public. Locally, on the ground, they might form pockets of “unacknowledged collectivity” (there are infinite forms of this but a simple example might be community gardening), by which I mean collectivity that again does not care about recognition, stability of models or access to central controls. They take up the practices of the “public” like ghosts, appearing only fleetingly here and there in the acknowledged public (for example, as “anti-globalisation activists” on the nightly news), and then only out of the corner of the acknowledged public’s eye. Yet these unacknowledged collectives seem to possess strange new powers of communality. They hint at public uncanny relations because their own relations come first. They seem in tune with the ongoing shifts, the convergences and divergences, of network ecologies. Again such unacknowledged collectivities were seen in the communities that found expression through the early days of amateur radio before the airwaves were regulated (or the later free radio in Italy, France and elsewhere [Goddard 2011]).

Such collectivity involves a question of “simply being able to live or to survive in a particular place, at a particular time, and to be ourselves”. However, this “has nothing to do with identity” (Guattari in Guattari and Rolnik 2008: 94—my emphasis). Guattari notes that “every time the problems of identity or recognition appear in a particular place, at the very least we are faced with the threat of blocking and paralysis of the process” (102). What do we perform in this situation? If we perform at all, it is perhaps as ghost with regard to publics, as unacknowledged collectivity with regard to each other. These perhaps become a kind of counter-fractal within performance.

Unacknowledge collectivities also teach us a new principle with regard to the third enclosure. We need always to re-singularise the situation, to use Guattari’s term .

How would this work? In terms of examples one could point to, for example, the Senselab project, “Technologies of Lived Abstraction” and its work on re-singularising “research creation” and transdisciplinary encounter (see senselab.ca; the online journal Inflexions gives several accounts and related discussions; the best account of this, however, along with principles for re-singularisation, is Manning and Massumi forthcoming). In these events, for example, there are no performed papers, and participants are asked to come with techniques for relation but not finished work. Encounter and creation is emphasised rather than performance. Failure is common, whatever that means outside of a performance environment. A different example, this time of a simultaneous resingularisation of the social, technical networks and action on climate change is the Coalition of the Willing Project, dedicated to open culture climate solutions (coalitionofthewilling.org.uk; and http://cotw.cc/wiki/Coalition_of_the_Willing). Another good set of examples of work in this vein could be found at the P2P foundation site p2pfoundation.net. Of course, this whole discussion is also haunted by the autonomists, the Situationists (Wark 2011), and all that has followed these two movements (for related events and ideas in the context of network culture see de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford 2005, Bauwens 2009, Lovink and Rossiter 2005, Goriunova 2011, Moore 2011).

How would this work in terms of techniques, practices and concepts?

First, when performance begins to work with Guattari’s processes of re-singularisation, events look somewhat different. They perhaps look like what he calls a “kind of molecular wave” (76). This molecular wave provides an alternate history, and a different contemporary problematic, to that of the public sphere, or the three enclosures. It may be true that this might look like a history of events that still need to find ways of being acted out, but more correctly it might be a matter of allowing an emergence of relations that are non-performative.

Second, crucial to this might be a reworking of the meaning of action. Here simply one has to remove actual activity, activity of real value, to yourself or your community, from the generalised circuits of performance systems. This is to say, recreate the possibility of action outside of performance systems.

Third, there is the resingularisation of time. Somewhat ironically we can turn to Benjamin Bloom in this respect. Bloom was the founder of the notion of a taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) within education—and these are at the heart of performance culture. Yet Bloom went on to develop “mastery learning” (1984). The most significant shift in this is the deregulation—and re-singularisation—of time. Students take the time they need to master objectives before they have to move on. Objectives remain but now interaction/relation with the teacher on a more one-to-one basis begins to take objectives out of a draconian test-based system, and therefore out of a general subjective equivalence. As education, it works. Although you can imagine how well one-to-one teaching and taking one’s time go down with funding bodies. It’s also been in trouble with the Christian Right in the US, largely because it affirms the child, rather than breaking their will (Berliner 1997). They are right. The control of time is crucial if you are going to force people to perform in a certain way. The single biggest factor in the softer forms of control over life such as performance systems is the fact that they take up so much time, and create “time” in a certain way. Bloom’s inversion of the connection between time and progress is therefore very important.

Fourth, there is something else hidden here in Bloom’s work, alongside the flexible time to master objectives. This is variation. Individual variation becomes a plus (although Bloom was keen to bring the virtues of individual teaching into group work). Ideally, there would even be time for non-action, for open thought, even for more flexible educational relations between students, between teachers. The question becomes one then of reintroducing a flexibility and openness of tasks and relations between, for example students, teachers, colleagues, while minimising performance. “Impossible”, I hear funders say. However, it is of course what is already happening in learning and teaching in almost any informal setting, including much of informal learning online—a gigantic ghosted public if ever there was one.

Fifth, I will suggest a counter-movement to performance systems is perhaps found in Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of “periperformativity” (2002: 5). Her definition is striking in the context here. A “periperformative” is an utterance “whose complex efficacy depends on their tangency to, as well as their difference from, the explicit performatives” (5). Periperformatives ghost performatives. Periperformatives live in the neighbourhood of performatives but fragment them, take them somewhere else. They disrupt a system’s smooth fractalisation. We might think of Bartleby the Scrivener’s famous “I would prefer not to” (Melville 2004[1853]), or, as a colleague recently advised me to say in relation to further requests for administrative work “it can’t be done”. These seem to me to be almost un-performative assemblages, more perhaps than counter-performatives. Periperformatives open up time again, open up possible relations and potentials, allow for new ecologies of practice, of performance and just as crucially, non-performance.

These periperformatives perhaps need to be accompanied by Félix Guattari’s metamodeling. Normal modeling and framing involve a series of frozen representations, operating to channel experience into narrow forms of performance. Metamodeling frees things up, moves not above them, but between them, a kind of counter to the communicative or even fractal aspects of performative systems as these construct frames and models. Metamodels “introduce movement, multiplicity and chaos into models” (Genosko and Murphie 2008). A metamodel “ensures precariousness, uncertainty and creativity over fixity, universality and automatic articulations” (Genosko 2003: 134-135). Shake the frame, undo prescriptive actions. Or, better sometimes, just don’t subscribe to the frame, especially not in practice. Just don’t do it. Unswoosh.

The psychic system, or better the world itself, might be on your side. Kosofsky Sedgwick, writing with Adam Frank about Silvan Tomkins’ work on cybernetics, discusses the psychic system as fundamentally out of tune with the kinds of assumptions you need for neat inputs/outputs, alignments, and so on. In short, there is no neat alignment, or, we might say, even fixed allegiances within the field of the psychic system, or within this system relations with other systems (that is, the world from which something like the psychic system ongoingly emerges). There is, in a sense, nothing with which to align. It’s certainly not a question of the defined and unshiftable “object” within the “objective”. Rather, it’s a matter of complex assemblages, or what they call “co-assemblages” with an affect system “encompassing several more, and more qualitatively different, possibilities that on/off”. Kosofsky Sedgwick and Frank therefore share an attraction to “the image of an undifferentiated but differentiable ecology [along with an ability to] discuss how things differentiate” (in Kosofsky Sedgwick 2002: 106).

This attraction would be the key point of difference when thinking through the ethical constitution of performance in all its forms.

I’m ultimately arguing here for a commitment to a “differential life” (Murphie 2005).  This is life which brings together concepts of different/ciation with pragmatic techniques of living. However, I want to finish with that which I have been suggesting might sometimes seem to be a missing ingredient—non-performance, that is, not performing in any sense of the word.

references are here

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