Collectives, care and isolation in Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis

<written in 2017, was to be developed into part of a publication>

 

Revisiting Genesis is a twelve-episode web series produced by Oreet Ashery, a transdisciplinary visual artist engaged with “bio/political fiction, gender materiality and potential communities.”[1] Revisiting Genesis explores digital environments, death-industry services, neoliberal necropolitics, post-industrialism and multiculturalism. The series comes from Oreet’s own experiences of seeing friends and artists dying online, in particular feminist artist Alexis Hunter[2] who documented her final days in hospital on Facebook. The series uses a combination of script and improvisation, blurring distinctions between fiction and lived experience. The three main narrative threads – Genesis’ slideshow, Bambi[3] and Nurse Jackie[4] exploring options for his digital legacy, and the stories of real people with life-limiting conditions – are presented in fragmentary formations that offer a turbid perception of the social ensemble: that of dispersed seriality[5] and market behaviour.

The commodity here is death – the afterlife – in which a legacy contact is selected (slash competes),[6] familial territories are enforced via inbox,[7] avatars are created making wonky co-declarations: we are futurists!,[8] smartphone séances and diagnosis-ware –please speak clearly into the handset stating your symptoms– and Nurse Jackie composes slideshows[9] that recompose the (soon to be) composting. In this text, I am interested in the collective formations and subsequent dispersals that occur in the web series, alongside what this means for care and solidarity within a larger psychic health in which isolation dominates social practices.[10]

Genesis is the central figure, the title of the series itself suggesting rebirth, or a second origin.[11] Connected by their Jewish migrant heritage, she is seen to be a reincarnation of artist Dora Gordine and Amy Winehouse, however her slideshow is also gleaned from Oreet’s own archives. Genesis’ presence is that of a disappearing figure, and is said to be ‘caught in a feminist death cycle.’ Attention is paid to the disappearance of women throughout the series, and subsequent developments in the story also stress the disappearances of spaces for minorities – in particular the working classes and migrants.

This text is indebted to contributions by the Revisiting Genesis collaborative writing group. Although our collaborative writing never much materialised beyond minute taking, their thoughts and insights offered new intensities and virtual mappings. Thank you to Oreet Ashery, Coral Brookes, Rosaliina Elgland, Ricardo Guimaraes, Kayla Izikowitz, Jun Lim, Zviki Mutyambizi, Ruyin Nabizadeh, Olga Paczka, Mi Park, Craig Thomas, et al. We experienced individual and collective grief, even joy in our encounters – and a wedding! In spite of now-expired visas, this is part of an unfinished project yet to be realised. Our discussions presence themselves, I hope to do them justice, even in partiality.[12]

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-Please wait whilst we transfer you, a member of our team will contact you as soon as possible- [13]

Genesis is dying.

“At least, we think she is.”

 In the Unavowable Community, Maurice Blanchot writes that “to remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes [themself] definitely, […] this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community.” Much like Genesis’ friends, Blanchot doesn’t “keep up simply to help [them] die, but to share the solitude of the event” [14] that is most fully theirs whilst it dispossesses them absolutely. This means that in grief, or the process of dying, you are dispossessed of the sovereign self because the limits of self-sufficiency are exposed – opening you to the possibility of solitude-challenging collectivity. The reality of our existence as interdependent beings is laid bare.

It is through this vulnerability that Genesis becomes an uncertain and fragile center for the group. Genesis’ friends come to understand themselves as “a spontaneous group formation out of seriality.”[15] Genesis’ recomposition is the concern that her friends share, putting them beside themselves whilst opening them to commonality. From this grey point, “friendship means sharing a refrain, a semiotic set that allows us to see the same vision and helps to create a world out of chaos.”[16] Nurse Jackie assists the group and their vision, composing Genesis’ slideshow through archival and narrative reconstructions. This involves “an activity of selection, elimination and extraction […] to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space that has been drawn.”[17]

Even though the group has entered into a process in which “everyone in turn serves as the unifier of the other members.”[18] It does not necessarily mean it is always successful and this group-in-fusion strains itself at the borders of solitude. The intensity of the dispossessive encounter leads to resistance. One of Genesis’ friends attempts to reclaim (possess) themselves through a reassertion of solitude, whilst another attempts to hold the unity:

“…some space, I need to be alone.”

“we should stick together.”

“I really need to be alone.”

Friendship is further challenged in a previous scene from another narrative – that of performance artist Annie Brett. Annie has Crohn’s disease[19] and the nature of her condition means she has to spend long stretches of time in hospital. Nurse Jackie queries her about loneliness, to which Annie replies:

“… I’ve got a very good friend … who actually came in to see me, in hospital, once … funny enough, she wasn’t actually there to see me … to have that five minutes … talking … it reminded me what again I was fighting for … almost like another drug had entered my system … boosted the need to get out, almost the immune system …”[20]

To reframe both of these scenes, it is not friendship itself that is under question, but the conditions that make friendship possible. The structural weakness of the social fabric jeopardises “the very possibility of communication, empathy and solidarity.”[21] The first can be read as isolation necessitated through processes of subjectification that privilege self-sufficiency. The second is isolation unwillingly endured because of chronic illness, requiring a rerouting through technology. Annie’s comments are noticeable for the prominence of communication technologies, in conjunction with her physical capacity for participation.[22] The surprise –oh!– of the accidental hospital visit solicits friendships sustained primarily through “actions without an actor” that “play out on the ground of social visibility, but they don’t create any common ground in the space of consciousness and affectivity.”[23] Instant messaging being one example of actions without an actor – for instance, think of those you speak to online but who do not acknowledge you in the street.[24] A re-evaluation of the social constructions of friendship and its mediations is demanded in order to revalue the corporeal mind[25] and what this means for the chronically ill and/or disabled. Seeing Annie as a corporeal actor beyond virtual platforms is the –oh!– of empathetic recognition.

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Early on, Bambi is offered the choice “your right to total erasure”[26] an acid soaked data stick frozen in resin, printed with the refrain:

ne me quitte(s) pas [27]

This consummate object holding upon its surface an eerie cry of alien actors.

The serial interchangeability of actors behind digital actions enforces precarity in lived social relations. In desperation, this scarcity of affective solidarity can exhibit itself as a certain self-interested competitiveness. Genesis’ friends enter into a competitive relation when a legacy contact needs to be chosen, in order to take care of Genesis’ digital assets. In this scene, Genesis is the object of a smartphone séance, resisting the summons of the group, manifested as ‘sister’s grey matter.’ In Sartre’s framework,

“what look like static physical objects can be translated into human relationships of which they are the disguise, or what look like direct, face-to-face human relationships can be seen to constitute mere reflections of inert objects and material systems of things.”[28]

Petrifying (wo)man in order to animate matter, Genesis becomes the practico-inert object her friends are serialised by, slipping into individualism.[29] The friends gather around ‘her’, sharing a common objective yet promoting their individual interests. They bay at the screen, the expressive delineating the possessive:

“… choose me Genesis … choose me …”

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These are the contemporary conditions we have to work from, proliferation of capitalist technics reinstating organic scarcity and separation, and to quote Deleuze and Guattari: “in animals as in human beings, there are rules of critical distance for competition.”[30] In a state of succession without coexistence, an assertion of bourgeois individualism attempts to smooth disruption. One of Genesis’ friends does this, attempting to stabilise themselves through laying claim to artistic production in a reassertion of possessive individualism – manifesting again in competition:

“In the field we work in, there isn’t really space for two people doing something so similar, is there Genesis?”[31]

Guattari writes that we have lost the languages of human solidarity.[32] Conditions of possibility are foreclosed in this context of competitive relations, for example, what might Genesis bring to the aforementioned field that her friend may not? In an unpublished text Acid Communism, Mark Fisher writes that “capital necessarily and always blocks the production of common wealth.” This ideological project can be seen to manifest in the consolidations and marketisations of educational structures.

Revisiting Genesis is concerned with the disappearance of spaces for minorities and it is to be argued that the real movement of accelerated capital is leaving-behind.[33] Using material from Ashery’s archives, Nurse Jackie tells Genesis’ story of the Charles Keene College in Leicester. It is here in 1988 that she[34] made costumes for dance classes and Nurse Jackie explains that

“… making those costumes gave you a creative outlet and a sense of community and that was important to you as a recent immigrant coming to Leicester.”

Charles Keene offered a space for experimentation that didn’t belong in professional-producing factories. The Undercommons argues that professionalisation, in its negligence, is “devoted to the asocial”[35] and involves “the reduction and command of the social individual.”[36] The college merger is one such mechanism, as Nurse Jackie explains:

“… for many years we have been witnessing the consolidation of small autonomous colleges into composite organisms made up of multicampus merger universities run by centralised management …”

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This is a form of consciousness deflation, an intensification of serial dispersal, students as statistics, interchangeable as part of Leicester College – now one of the UK’s largest colleges. The Undercommons argues: “does the critical academic not teach how to deny precisely what one produces with others”[37] and it is to be argued that the oppressive frameworks of professional practice and job scarcity enforce this delineating and possessive ethos. To continue the quote from Acid Communism, Mark Fisher argues that “instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.”[38] The macro-consolidation of campuses is such an obstruction, however in its homogenising movement there is a guttural churning, to quote Moten and Harney, that “the uncanny feeling we are left with is that something else is there in the undercommons.”[39] This is where the outsiders attempt to consolidate themselves after the demolition of spaces that the profession(al)s did not recognize and subsequently folded. Increasing numbers of students are pushed through failing structures, and calls for the ‘creative side of withdrawal’[40] become snarled in a tricky reclamation -you felt like a fraud, you had to go … was it the flu or the immigrant in you-[41] from dominant discourses of failure, unprofessionalism and discrimination[42] in places like the academy where feeling welcomed is not universal. This institutional structure is symptomatic of a capitalism whose dominant mode is consumption, embodied by the marketisation of education. These material conditions perhaps even denying (official) entry.[43]

Few other professions struggle for self-determination than nursing.[44] Under contemporary conditions, there are alarming similarities between sociologists writing about workplace resistance in call centres and the palliative care nurses’ dialogue in Episode 9. The nurses dislike acknowledging the target economy of their work and it appears in momentary lapses … I’m trying to sell the patient … sell… I shouldn’t use that … the real movement of the situation can only be read by actor Akiya Henry in her role of Nurse Jackie, “But it’s true isn’t it! You’re becoming a sales person.” The movement of the fictionalised nurse expresses the nurses’ real movement[45] – the separation between a passion for care, and the lived reality of meeting targets and pitching themselves as healthcare professionals to patients, families and colleagues in order to receive a paycheck. Similarly to telesales, there is a perceived individualisation of worker resistance because of the way the nurses have had to reconfigure the dynamics of resistance.[46] “Silent strategies of the collective disengagement from corporate culture”[47] manifest as resistance in the break:

“…tea gives you the time … to have a discussion you know … it’s almost like a timer … whereas if you’re just standing here … ooh I should go back … but you know, you’ve gotta drink your tea…“ “…sometimes I wanna have a cigarette…“[48]

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Resistance practices such as ‘working to rule’ might be heavily criticised in care professions,[49] because of reduced complicity and empathy between staff and patients over working conditions. Part of the problematic here is how work-to-rule is conceptualised. On the one hand, there is the media conception that proclaims patient safety would be compromised, threatening the striking nurses with a deeply affective public outcry. On the other hand, work-to-rule can be a practice in which the nurses ignore the bureaucracy of their role and attend purely to patient safety and reproductive labour in order to criticise the unnecessary labour that obscures them from performing their role. Work-to-rule redefined through the lens of life-making instead of institution-building or contractual restrictions.

Human capacity have been encroached upon, emotional labour appropriated in the management of the sales encounter. This is a material structure “arising from people’s historically congealed institutionalised actions and expectations that position and limit individuals in determinate ways that they must deal with.”[50] This low period of class consciousness, driven by consumer satisfaction which turns oppressed against the oppressed in a kind of ‘negative solidarity’[51] or ‘magical voluntarism’,[52] makes us forget collective forms through mandatory individualism.[53] Capital’s mechanisms of capture (precarity, need to survive) force a serial dispersion, “for the middle classes fear the mass of workers and react preventatively [in] the lowering of salaries”[54] for example the stagnation of public sector wages. Unfortunately, in the lived reality of care and class interests, it can be difficult to separate necessity from target-economies, when patient care is intimately linked to the propagation of a service economy.

The intimacy of the role of the palliative care nurse, if we think of the first Blanchot quote,[55] pulls the nurse in two directions. One, the serial interchangeability of patients, two, the narrative punctuations, husks of dead actions (freedoms?) that sediment themselves upon the nurses’ subjectivity – calling their capacities into question.[56] An inhuman landscape is revealed, demanding interiorisation that alienates because of the sheer number of other human actions that impede individual (and collective) action. It is a confrontation that “exposes the real relations among people as inhumane.”[57]

“I feel like I’m trying to be a machine but the person, the human being side is taking control. I’m finding it very difficult to like, emotionally disconnect …”

Patients dehumanised into serial numbers and statistics, the revelation of the inhumanity of human relations realises itself.[58] Statistical anonymity:[59] one, two, three hundred slideshows and counting for Nurse Jackie. Living besides herself, a dispossession “that marks the limits of self-sufficiency and that establishes us as relational and interdependent beings” although “our interdependency establishes our vulnerability to social forms of deprivation.”[60] The nurses attend the funerals of the patients they’re close to, as well as helping people with no one left to plan their own funerals. In a society constructed upon market logic it “accepts that there must by definition be casualties.” [61] Nurses see the realities of loneliness, sharing in their patients’ ultimate solitude, their absolute dispossession. It is no consequence that failure “is personalised by the most dispossessed and powerless groups.”[62]

“… it can happen to you when you’re nursing. You know, after a while you see patient after patient … familiarity … it’s very difficult to get nurses to stay in cancer nursing … literature describe it as burnt out, that we’re burnt out emotionally because you’re having to grieve and you’re having somewhat to confront your own self and your mortality …”

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Ungrounded, burn out prevails. In the current conditions, fantasies where “those whispered secrets and sideways glances that used to pass in the stairwell on smoke breaks start to run the show”[63] spill out into dialogue. Moten and Harney affirm that it is “in the trick of politics we are insufficient, scarce, waiting in pockets of resistance, in stairwells, in alleys, in vain.”[64] It must be understood that when practicing in bad faith, that “none of them [the nurses] have any power to disobey in the system’s terms.”[65] Freedom through the system’s terms runs the risk of reiterating bourgeois individualist hegemony where their work is not related to a larger working class struggle.[66] The system’s terms are unjust. Mark Fisher writes that “neoliberalism’s[67] victory [depended] upon a co-option of the concept of freedom. Neoliberal freedom, evidently, is not a freedom from work, but freedom through work.”[68] The inhumanity of relations demanded by target-time and statistical dehumanisation will reach burn out, intensified by the rapid depletion of the racialised and gendered workforce the NHS has always required and exploited.[69] Pushes towards the digital must reduce clerical work and resist the further precaritisation of care,[70] and a second move to recognize that the nurse as part of the class of the dispossessed, co-produces ecologies of care and life-making that must move into common practice[71] not rampant privatisation.

In the series, collective closure is attempted through Genesis’ party, a more convivial setting for the realisation of her friends’ common project[72] the reconstitution of Genesis. The narrative strands of Revisiting Genesis come together, Genesis’ friends, as well as the real people with life-limiting conditions. This unity – both the party guests and the web series itself – is a struggle between sad passions and the joyful encounters of friendship,[73] presenting itself as a “complicated coexistence of groups at various stages of their development and masses of serial individuals surrounding them.”[74] In the heat of the group’s fusion, as they come to understand themselves as such a unity, an individual breaks in the face of its cooling:

“Nothing’s ever good enough is it? It’s just not working! Look we’re all here and it’s … do we know what’s even supposed to be happening?”

-crying-

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In the end, the group disperses. Genesis’ grey matter remains on display. Fredric Jameson writes that “Sartre’s theory is only designed to account for the empirical fact of the very real sense of life-and-death urgency which a group-in-fusion confers on itself.”[75] Although, it is to be argued that the accumulated interpersonal history, the encounter with others, sustains a responsibility to that which has passed. In its invisibility, there is still a politics in process which may be more active than perceived, in the will to honour a memory and a history of struggle. Sartre’s framework incites Jameson’s dialectic: “until such fetishism of individual isolation itself dissolves and yields before a swarming, suffocating, intolerable feeling of human relationships and violent antagonistic struggle in all directions and at every instant […] one cannot awake until one has first measured the extent and the intensity of the nightmare.”[76]

Although in Oreet’s words:

“Casting is how we can affect the future, in Genesis’ part of the story there are no white men until episode eleven.”[77]

Continue reading “Collectives, care and isolation in Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis”

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Blueprints for recapacitation: critiquing virtual reality as a (para-)site of care through an analysis of ‘San Junipero’ (2016)

<Essay written for my aesthetics class at CalArts>

 

The television series Black Mirror has been effective in revealing troubling insights into the possible near-futures of the technological present. Laced with creator Charlie Brooker’s trademark dark satirical humour, the series diagnoses some startling horizons for the popular imaginary. Released on Netflix in 2016—to much celebration for its uplifting narrative compared to other episodes in the series—‘San Junipero’ sees protagonists Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) pursue a moving lesbian romance described as “defy[ing] the laws of space and time”[1] in the seaside town of San Junipero, 1987. This defiance is achieved through the San Junipero[2] system–a simulated reality–offered for trial to those who are dying, before they decide whether or not to “pass over” (die) and live in (be uploaded to) San Junipero as “full-timers”.

Political theorist Bryant W. Sculos outlines what is at stake representationally when exploring new technologies in science fiction,

““San Junipero” still portrays a world where [white wealthy men] try to control the decisions other people make with their bodies, including end-of-life decisions, which can be made both simpler and more complex as technology advances. Absent a reconfiguration of power relations in our society, will we be lucky enough to end up with a world even remotely as habitable and humane as the one portrayed in “San Junipero?” […] what massive corporation is profiting off of the people who chose to live/die in San Junipero’s virtual reality? This part of the story is noticeably left unaddressed.”[3]

Brooker has said that although the episodes “exist in the same psychological universe. […] They are not explicitly in one universe; there’s not a connecting timeline, but they confusingly overlap at times.”[4] Anthology episode ‘Black Museum’ nods to the murky history of San Junipero’s development by neuro-research “med-tech” company TCKR. Referring to an early neurological implant,[5] the guide explains,

[Rolo:] “It’s how they wound up with the digital consciousness transference, what they call cookies today.”

[Nish:] “Uh, like when they upload old people to the cloud?”

[Rolo:] “Yeah, but this was way before that. We didn’t have that whole immersive VR environment shizzle back then.”[6]

Through focusing on what the show infers but leaves unaddressed, this paper will explore some speculative considerations raised by San Junipero as a virtual reality system. Included in this are its relation to retro-revisionist discourses, compulsory ability, as well as the ‘invisible’ infrastructures sustaining the system such as care-labour and data storage.

 

Retro-(re)visionary

The episode opens with Yorkie walking through the streets of San Junipero. Shop windows flicker with television images of Max Headroom, a fictional AI character popularised throughout the 80s. The inclusion of Headroom is a subtle nod to the shared mythos of near-future depictions of global corporate control over media and technology and their addicted citizens. Additionally, Headroom’s origin story is also one of uploaded consciousness.[7]

Written as a period episode, ‘San Junipero’ is predominantly set in 1987 when same-sex marriage was illegal. The storyline doesn’t simply yearn for a better yesterday, but actualises one. Although it may be unfair to critique a series such as Black Mirror for a lone period piece, it is symptomatic of a wider cultural sphere which struggles to break from the present–hence ‘black mirror’.[8] The series sustains an uncanny charge however, because of the technological and cultural specificity to its historical moment.

There is, however, a certain popular melancholia that resides in visions of better days. A liberal progressive vision plays out in the virtual reconfiguration of a more ‘just’ past, without actually or necessarily shifting the present, and that being celebrated, at the same time, as ‘progressive’. Disability studies scholar Jasbir Puar critiques this tendency via a popular viral video,

“How useful is it to imagine troubled gay youth might master their injury and turn blame and guilt into transgression, triumph, and all-American success? […] “retro-homo-reprofuturism,” [describes] “the projection of one’s own past self onto the youth of today in order to revise one’s own ordinary life into exceptional progress narrative,” functions to misread the impasse of the present as an inability to imagine the future.”[9]

Rather than projecting her past self onto the youth of today, Yorkie gets to literally live her youth in a more ‘progressive’ 1987. This retro-fitted social justice is her ecstatic honeymoon, papering over the social realities of queer struggle in that historical period. 1987 was the year activist group ACT UP was founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.[10] Puar elaborates,

“During the U.S. AIDS crisis, the charge of ACT UP activists was “You are killing us!,” the “you” being the state, understood as responsible for addressing the crisis and providing care to its citizens (and noncitizens). The “you” is also the social and the political, the broader social and political contexts within which homosexual bodies could be sacrificed to such indifference and neglect.”[11]

San Junipero creates a willing anachronism, a shell of the era, which is the formal prefiguration of nostalgia therapy.[12] This investment in a psychological nostalgia precludes possibility in the present through withdrawal into the protocols of the non-melancholic virtual space. These sites are non-specific enough to enable expansive participation, leaving “the endemic social and political forces that continue to manifest homophobic hatred”[13] unaddressed. It “presumes the end, the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, rather than any homage to its ongoing deleterious effects or current situation.”[14]

The formal nostalgia here which allows a celebration of the present in its recycling of the familiar, updated by the present-future (the inclusion of gay marriage) in the present-past (1987). This diagnoses a contemporary era perforated with anachronism and inertia. In Ghosts of my Life, Mark Fisher criticises this tendency in which

“the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century”[15]

San Junipero is symptomatic of this, offered as a place in which the ‘not-yet’ futures that haunted the 80s are technologically sutured onto this reality, manifested in Kelly’s claim that “folks aren’t as uptight as they used to be.”[16]

Residents are interpellated into a state of limitlessness, as Kelly proclaims, “Let’s not limit ourselves!” Because of course, the only thing holding them back is themselves in this frictionless reality. In Puar’s framework, the “you” here is the individual, inserted into a progressive past which “capitalises on a neoliberal sentiment that detaches individual well-being from any collective, social responsibility.”[17] The way in which the technology facilitates this, echoes Fisher’s concern that,

“The disarticulation of class from race, gender and sexuality has in fact been central to the success of the neoliberal project – making it seem, grotesquely, as if neoliberalism were in some way a precondition of the gains made in anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist struggles.”[18]

Especially because the period in which ‘San Junipero’ focuses was the beginning of the neoliberal era. Fisher writes that “the nostalgia mode subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old. The effect was to disguise the disappearance of the future as its opposite.”[19] This lends itself to comfortable familiarity of ‘San Junipero’, which perhaps partly mirrors the function of nostalgia therapies. It is this “feel-good” aspect that accounts for much of the episode’s popularity.

Articles attempting to timeline Black Mirror episodes typically comment on the futuristic ‘style’ of ‘San Junipero’.[20] Fisher remarks on this cultural phenomenon in which the ‘futuristic’

“has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font.”[21]

Fisher says that as though,

“we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.”[22]

However, part of Black Mirror’s success is its ability to address this anachronistic and obfuscating style of the present. ‘San Junipero’ achieves this in part through contrasting the nostalgic San Junipero with the near-future ‘present’ of the end-of-life facility. It is through this juxtaposition that a contemporary anxiety—finding ‘solutions’ for aging populations—is aesthetically represented.

 

Complex embodiment and compulsory able-bodiedness (the body and disabled futurity)

‘San Junipero’ explores the morality of choosing whether to “pass over” or not, however it is distinctly uncritical of the form this new embodiment takes. San Junipero has all the trappings of a neoliberal ‘good life’. Kelly entered seeking fun and quick fixes after a lifetime of yearning during heterosexual marriage and mourning her child’s untimely loss. She was there to remain a tourist, to sandbox with no commitment. For Yorkie on the other hand, the San Junipero system is revolutionary because it offers a new life, a life she could never have had otherwise, a life ‘pitied’ because of her disabled body. This reveals another darker aspect of the erasures and promises which the San Junipero system offers. Disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers writes that,

“The ideology of ability stands ready to attack any desire to know and to accept the disabled body in its current state. [T]o wish to return the body magically to a past era of supposed perfection, to insist that the body has no value as human variation if it is not flawless. […] We require the stuff of science fiction to describe these scenarios, […] But no recourse to fiction is required to imagine an able-bodied person becoming disabled.”[23]

Yorkie is a quadriplegic as a consequence of a car accident, following her ‘coming out’ to her religious family at the age of twenty-one. For forty years Yorkie has been in a hospital bed, unable to communicate recognisably. Siebers writes that,

“The future obeys an entirely different imperative, one that commands our triumph over death […] Cybernetics treats human intelligence as software that can be moved from machine to machine. It promises a future where human beings might be downloaded into new hardware whenever their old hardware wears out.”[24]

Black Mirror focuses significantly on the notion of the digitisation of consciousness, transferable from wetware to hardware. The series also idealises an idea of bodily form, a ‘man in the head’ which retains the bipedal human form (typically residing in some void space or control room) even as the consciousness may be transplanted into other material bodies.[25] However, if mind is an idea of the body, and the body an open set of possibilities,[26] why is there a persistence on the able-human shape and form? Even after the organism’s death, the simulation retains its bureaucratic organisation.

It is taken as a given that Yorkie will “pass over”. Siebers notes that in the ideology of ability, “[o]vercoming a disability is an event to be celebrated. It is an ability in itself to be able to overcome disability.”[27] The recourse to fiction here is necessary as a space which enables the imagining of a disabled person’s recapacitation, a simulation which exists within the horizons of the ideology of ability. Consequently, there is no body horror in the body’s recapacitation in the model of compulsory ability. When Yorkie “passes over”, no such horror is invoked. There is a contradiction at play here, where the body is simultaneously discarded yet perfected, ideology smoothing over incongruities in the experience of the body’s mutability.[28] Culturally, there is more horror to be found in the occupation of the disabled body.

For those who intend to help Yorkie “pass over”, pity is a defining factor. Initially introduced in the plot as Yorkie’s fiancé, Greg is revealed to be a nurse. Their marriage is shown to be in order to circumvent euthanasia laws. Yorkie comments, “I know he pities me. That pisses me off.”[29] Kelly instead proposes to marry her and sign off the paperwork, however afterwards, Yorkie asks Kelly to “pass over” against her wishes. Kelly defends herself, “No, I pitied you, and that’s the truth. I pitied you. Now you give me some sales pitch about how fucking peachy forever could be.”[30]

Kelly repeatedly refuses her vulnerability to Yorkie through differentiating herself, scorning her as ‘pitiable’. However they are both desiring the same ideal, to inhabit what Suely Rolnik describes as a “new élan for the idea of paradise developed by Judeo-Christian religions: the mirage of a smoothed-over, stable life under perfect control.”[31] Through attempting to refuse this fragility—“I didn’t want to like anyone. So you’ve been just… totally fucking inconvenient”[32]—shame is produced by the inability to control and contain. This opens onto compulsive processes of differentiation, refusing life as it is experienced.

This construction of disability as undesirable is problematic, portraying the difficulty in thinking beyond the conceptual horizon of able-bodiedness in order to attune to the specific sensibilities and discourses of living with disability. It is much easier to have a reactive body politic that deals with the immediate promise of ability than an active, engaged practice that deals with complexity. This allows for the shame attached to the disabled body, personalising oppression rather than recognising the external causes of such subjugation. Theses causes are not given in experience, they have to be constructed as a system of relations in a social-materialist structure.

Upon entering San Junipero, Yorkie’s anxiety supposedly represents her inexperience navigating the 80s environment as an able-bodied, queer white woman. The difficulty in dealing with an episode of science fiction rather than an account by a disabled person, is that Yorkie’s initial anxiety could be a lazy trope used by the writers in order to individually pathologize her experience,[33] or, her anxiety could be an affective resistance to the demand to be an able ‘flexible subject’. Disability studies scholar Robert McRuer describes the ‘flexible subject’ as someone who,

“can perform wholeness through each recurring crisis. Under neoliberalism, […] individuals who are indeed “flexible and innovative” make it through moments of subjective crisis. They manage the crisis, or at least show that they have management potential; ultimately, they adapt and perform as if the crisis had never happened. Attention must be drawn to the crisis in order for the resolution to be visible, but to draw too much attention to the subjective crisis, and to the fragmentation and multiplicity it effects, would be to perform—or act out—inflexibility. Past, present, and future are thus constantly reconsolidated to make it seem as if a subject or worker is exactly suited to each new role.”[34]

Yorkie’s anxiety, her ‘inflexibility’, as a tourist signals some resistance to the crisis of disembodiment. However she does of course adapt upon “passing over”. This transformation comes from moving, as McRuer describes, “away from disability to a picture-perfect (heterosexual, able-bodied) Hollywood ending.”[35] Updated to be a contemporary picture-perfect, pinkwashed, able-bodied, Hollywood ending (with “fucking awesome”[36] sex).

To rework McRuer’s phrasing; the San Junipero system offers to “fix” Yorkie (transform, improve), and in doing so “fixes” her (contains, stills, defines).[37] Rehabilitation here is ultimately a recourse to death, shadowing the negative view that “it is better to be dead than disabled”.[38] Yorkie must die in order to “pass over”, demanding adaptability, a disavowal of her past, as well as an embrace of a ‘new’ past discontinuous with her experience. She must become a flexible subject, which embraces the generated environment she now moves in. However, there is a certain rendering of form that forecloses certain possibilities.

Suely Rolnik outlines ways in which this may occur. She outlines two capacities in neuroscience, the first being the cortical capacity corresponding to perception, which allows us to apprehend the world in terms of forms upon which we project our available representations in order to give them meaning,

“This capacity, which is the most familiar to us, is associated with time, with the history of the subject and with language. […] The cortical capacity of the sensible is what allows us to preserve the map of reigning representations, so that we can move through a known scenario where things remain in their due places with a minimum of stability.”[39]

The second being the historically repressed subcortical capacity of the body, which apprehends impersonal forces and affects which become present in our bodies as sensations,

“The exercise of this capacity is disengaged from the history of the subject and of language. With it, the other is a living presence composed of a malleable multiplicity of forces that pulse in our sensible texture, thus becoming part of our very selves. Here the figures of subject and object dissolve, and with them, that which separates the body from the world.”[40]

Together, these allow the creation of a flexible subjectivity outlined by McRuer, initially instituted by twentieth century counter-cultures. It is arguably now the desired modality for contemporary subjectivity. Rolnik writes that this post-Fordist flexibility is guided by “an almost hypnotic identification with the images of the world broadcast by advertising and mass culture.”[41] So systems like San Junipero function in the following way,

“By offering ready-made territories to subjectivities rendered fragile by deterritorialization, these images tend to soothe their unrest, thus contributing to the deafness of their resonant body, and therefore to its invulnerability to the affects of the time that are presented within it. […] At stake here is the idea that there exist paradises, that these are now in this world and not beyond it, and above all, that certain people have the privilege of inhabiting them. […] such images transmit the illusion that we could be one of these VIPs, if we simply invested all our vital energy – our desire, affect, knowledge, intellect, eroticism, imagination, action, etc. – in order to actualize these virtual worlds of signs in our own existence, through the consumption of the objects and services they propose to us.”[42]

This is echoed in Kelly’s review in the opening nightclub scenes of ‘San Junipero’; “I mean look around. People try so hard to look how they think they should look. They probably saw it in some movie.”[43] Before acknowledging Yorkie’s difference in this situation, noting her glasses with the plastic lenses: “You’re authentically you.”[44]

It is through “our belief in this religious myth of neoliberalism, that the image-worlds produced by this regime turn into concrete reality in our own existence.”[45] These are investments in the promises of capital toward this terrestrial heaven. San Junipero is not a counterculture, it is the horizon of things to come, the refusal of vibrant life in the present towards “this fucking graveyard you’re so in love with.”[46]

Kelly disdains that which may shatter her ideal of the lifestyle unaffected by new others, trying to differentiate herself from the “full timers”, lest they destabilize her resolve. Kelly also attempts to resist the queer destabilization offered by Yorkie, withholding an attachment to her heterosexual life and commitments made in her previous life. An incompatibility occurs because

“despite the temporary visibility of disability and homosexuality […], the flexible corporate strategies that currently undergird contemporary economics, politics, and culture invariably produce a world in which disability and queerness are subordinated or eliminated outright.”[47]

McRuer continues,

“flexibility again works both ways: heterosexual, able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply.”[48]

This complex conflict plays out between Kelly and Yorkie, in which Kelly has a heterosexual privileging and familiarity with ability that allows her to nurture a certain disdain for Yorkie. Kelly is positively defined through her haves in contrast to the pitiable Yorkie who ‘lacks’ even in her attempts to perform both heterosexuality (see: ‘fiancé’ Greg) and ability. There is a tendency in which Yorkie’s queerness functions to support the heteronormativity around her, for example as the ‘friend’ deflecting Wes’ interest in Kelly. And though the episode concludes with a celebratory queering of this, their marriage simply replaces hetero for homo in the ‘saviour’ function of the male-carer-fiancé.[49]

However, Yorkie’s “sales pitch” demonstrates how embedded she is in this neoliberal myth of self-salvation through consumption – which both obscures and is obscured by the queer sociability that enabled her arrival there (such as the circumvention of family, non-reproductive relations and kinship).[50] Yorkie’s celebratory transformation, comes from a disavowal of both the collective and the body, toward individual salvation found in a consumer product which ultimately defers the experience of the lived reality of her happiness.

 

Invisible infrastructures

San Junipero appears to reintroduce the qualitative into the quantitative through its images of the, otherwise inaccessible, ‘good life’.[51] Part of its appeal is its contrast to how nursing homes are actually governed, which has been increasingly quantitative and target-based rather than qualitative.

The book Making Gray Gold by sociologist Timothy Diamond consists of research and fieldwork in U.S. nursing homes, mapping the tendency to treat care as a business throughout the 1980s.[52] Diamond writes,

“The ways cleanliness and nutrition are measured render comfort, taste, and texture accidental properties, irrelevant to the essential quantitative index. The leap from the everyday situations to their formal records involves a transformation into abstract measures.”[53]

In virtual reality, everything is a part of a quantitative index, even that which appears qualitative. What appears doesn’t necessarily refer to its “biophysical” counterpart in ways we would recognise. This is demonstrated when Kelly smokes a cigarette, commenting that it “doesn’t even taste of anything.”[54] Luciana Parisi explains that,

“[…] algorithms correspond to data objects that build actual instances of space and time that have volume, weight, gravity, depth, height, and density, and can thus be found in algorithmic architecture. […] these data objects are not simulations of some biophysical ground of the past or future. […] algorithms are not exclusively defined by the quality they can reproduce (color, sound, or variables), but also by the quantities of data that they operate. [Algorithms] are actual and thus spatiotemporally determined, conditioned and limited. But they are also abstract, and are thus capable of irreversibly determining change according to the degree to which they contaminate actualities.”[55]

San Junipero as a cultural representation of an algorithmically generated zone shows how, on the one hand, the algorithmic turn discounts or obscures human lived experience and its supportive labours, and on the other, how the computational is an actual entity which speculatively programmes the present beyond the biophysical. For the former, the erasure of peoples who care for the physical body (e.g. carers and nurses); the latter, to take from Gilles Deleuze’s text ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’,

“Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”[56]

This is made literal in the closing scenes, soundtracked by Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’. The viewer sees Kelly euthanised and buried with her husband and daughter, to join Yorkie in San Junipero, where they drive into the sunset. Following this, the scenes are intercut between the huge TCKR data banks, each individual flickering deposit attended to by a robot, to the citizens of San Junipero dancing in the nightclub. Yorkie having discarded her “authentic” glasses.

The San Junipero system directly straddles three spaces; the care home (discipline), the data bank (control), and the virtual simulation (post-cybernetic control). The bureaucratic, and abstract, authority of the care home enforces rules and laws which are separate from everyday life, yet resident bodies are urged to adapt to the limited schedules of under-resourced care, to the detraction of quality and choice. Diamond writes,

“[…] residents were expressing specific desires while encased within a system of control that precluded them from satisfying their own needs. […] Amid intense and elaborate external control, for those who lived and worked there much of everyday life was out of control.”[57]

Algorithmic control is a development on the control at a distance outlined by Diamond and Deleuze. Instead of transforming lived experience and needs into abstract measures and subsequently developing rules from that which apply back onto the nursing home, Parisi explains that,

“[…] the cybernetic apparatus of control, […] employs a quasi-empirical mode of calculation, according to which the necessary emergence of the new (the uncertain) and its potential effects are precalculated and preempted before the fact. In other words, the effects of the unknown have become the causal motor by which control is unconditionally exercised and driven by immanent decisions about what has not yet happened. […] turning the potential effects of the future into operative procedures within the present.”[58]

From this we can understand that the San Junipero system is not necessarily a fixed set of rules. Instead, it calculates a set of potential negative effects in order to instantiate procedures within the present. For example, the pain sliders and the auto-repair of damage to the environment, this modulation is both part of an apparatus of control that tracks the potential activities of each ‘person’, but also this ‘soft thought’ as Parisi terms it,

“[…] pertains to the existence of modes of thought, decision making, and mentality that do not exist in direct relation to human thinking. [Maintaining] a certain degree of autonomy from cognition demonstrated by their logical inconsistencies.”[59]

Which disrupts a certain causal mode of thinking. For example, Kelly punching a mirror means that the mirror is broken, however on returning her gaze to the impacted area it is now (illogically) unharmed. However, if, as the new materialisms claim, “information systems are open and not closed, dynamic and evolutionary (with rules that change over time), and are thus not preprogramed”,[60] then the compulsory ability represented in the San Junipero system may shift as the system evolves, as Parisi explains,

“Computational aesthetics therefore is not about the idealism of form, or about a code unravelling the complexity of biophysical structures. Instead, […] algorithmic architecture explains computational aesthetics as the programming of actualities through the algorithmic selection of patternless data. For this reason, algorithmic architecture is another form of post-cybernetic control, because it relies on algorithms to prehend incomputable data in order to program culture.”[61]

The question again arises as to why a ‘limitless’ space such as San Junipero appears to be so influenced by the ideologies of ability. However, the disciplinary society (e.g. nursing home) has an optimal model of normal, whereas security apparatuses attempt to bring the unfavourable more in line with the favourable, creating a norm which is an interplay of differential normalities.[62] So in many ways the predictive selection of the ‘random’ elements by the algorithm plays into pre-existing cultural prejudices—something we see played out across many interactive public facing AIs[63]—as “the shift toward the use of interactive algorithms has led designers to rely on biophysical inputs.”[64] Here the random element becomes the biophysical input, which becomes a ‘cookie’ entering the dynamic system of San Junipero and so on. And although the system can protect from ‘physical harm’, it would be hard to empirically prove any connection to what we would understand as the choice to avoid physical harm as it would not necessarily mirror our own understandings of mor(t)ality.

The profit to be made from these simulations and ‘cookies’ offers a bleak vision for what Puar describes as “increasingly demanding neoliberal formulations of health, agency, and choice – […] a liberal eugenics of lifestyle programming”.[65] Because as these virtual figures are not human as such, they can function differently – in ‘Black Museum’, Rolo even scoffs at the development of ‘rights’ for these forms,

“[…] the UN made it illegal to transfer human consciousnesses into limited formats like this. Gotta be able to express at least five emotions for it to be humane, apparently. [chuckles] Human rights for cookies.[66]

In the context of ‘San Junipero’, Jasbir Puar’s comment that,

“Disability empowerment and pride are part of rights discourses even as expressions of maiming, debilitation, and disabling are central to economies and vocabularies of violence and exploitation.”[67]

Brings us to the pressing question of,

“Which bodies are made to pay for “progress”? Which debilitated bodies can be reinvigorated for neoliberalism, available and valuable enough for rehabilitation, and which cannot be?”[68]

Some examples of this speculative and exploitative profit-extraction are as follows; the potential for San Junipero to provide scenarios for the software in ‘Hang The DJ’, in which a hundred simulations of a potential couple are played out in order to find their match suitability percentage. Or the enslavement presented in the episode ‘White Christmas’, as the data copy or ‘cookie’ version of Greta (Oona Chaplin) becomes a living version of Amazon’s Alexa, in which the technician Matt (Jon Hamm) breaks her through temporal adjustments, making her experience six months of isolation in five minutes. Similarly, the use of external control is exercised in ‘USS Callister’ in which game developer Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) creates digital clones from his co-workers’ DNA, punishing them for disobedience through manipulating their bodies; transforming the mouth into a smooth surface of skin thereby limiting the trained reaction to breathe, or mutation into a ‘monstrous’ non-human form. Daly also does not let them die, and offers the threat of further torture of CEO James’ (Jimmi Simpson) son whom he keeps threatening to “bring back” into Infinity, the simulated reality software that Daly created.

Each of these situation substitutes the individual for a copy to be exploited. The entry into medical technologies, alludes to Deleuze’s theorisations on the hospital system,

“[…] the new medicine “without doctor or patient” that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation – as they say – but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a “dividual” material to be controlled.”[69]

The breaking down of people into dividual fragments—represented by the data bank or diagnosis charts—are “stories of control societies”.[70] Yet simultaneously the reliance on digital narratives,

“obscures the ongoingness of discipline and the brutal exercise of sovereign power, often cloaked in humanitarian, democratic, or life preservationist terms.”[71]

Although the conditions in San Junipero may be preferable to an end-of-life care facility, there is something suspicious about the potential usefulness for business and profit-extraction. It should be an option but not a prerogative. The obfuscation by technology of this function as something preferable, allows a false equivalency, as Kelly speaks to Greg about the rationing of the San Junipero system,

[Kelly:] “They ration it out. They don’t trust us with more.”

[Greg:] “They say you go crazy if you have too much, you know? You don’t leave your seat. You disassociate body from mind.”

[Kelly:] “Like that doesn’t happen in every senior home already. [laughs]”

And beyond this, the exploitative practices that lead to such technological advancement, where ‘care’ is simultaneously a recapatitation machine and an extractive process, adding new resonance to the motto,

“A Nursing Home Is a 24-Hour-a-Day, 365-Day-a-Year Business”[72]

As the organisation of these spaces is founded on specific relations of power, a universal modulation of those with access to and who are recuperable through the San Junipero system. The only apparent issue is whether you can pay for it, especially in its U.S. setting. The new adventures of generated youth, residents plunged into a world of nostalgia, to live out their own syrupy memoir.[73] No limits sounds enticing, to be free from restraints. Inhabiting paradise, or at least the hypnotic image of it, woven in and through popular vocabularies, the private liberal promises of a bourgeois lifestyle.

Virtual reality is a (para-)site of care, in which a parallelism is drawn between the site of care and this new site of embodiment. The relational aspect of care is circumvented through its automation. This ‘liberates’ the nurse from the emotional labour that is not taught in the formal training.[74] Instead, San Junipero residents take on the relational task. There is no emotional austerity in ‘San Junipero’. The only limit being the “triple-lockdown on euthanasia cases” that “stops people passing over just ’cause they prefer San Junipero flat out.”[75] This intense emotional engagement becomes a substitute for political action in the present.[76]

 

They say in heaven, love comes first \ We’ll make heaven a place on Earth

In her book Migrant Futures, Aimee Bahng asks, “How do our stories of the future chart the ways we invest – financially, politically, ideologically, and intellectually – in the present?”[77] As a series, Black Mirror begins to offer a popular cultural vocabulary for what is happening to us. ‘San Junipero’ was celebrated for being a ‘hopeful’ episode. It betrays, however, a popular liberal imaginary which does little to explore political empowerment or human diversity. To use Liat Ben-Moshe’s words, “The issue is that we still can’t account for ways of effectively living with disability. [But it] produces specific sensibilities and discourses.”[78] What is the future that doesn’t disavow lived life? In this world of foreclosed opportunities, or visions of opportunity that simply mirror the hegemonic, what kind of exuberances might restore texture to this world?

Critics may say the emotional range and journey of Yorkie and Kelly technically moves beyond the television trope of killing off queer characters.[79] That their sex, sun and sea ending is a celebratory form of queer exuberance. However this image is stabilised through the limited ideological horizons of ability, homo-/hetero-normativity, consumer therapies and other privatised relations. These ideological horizons ‘empathetically’ modulate vulnerability, dividuating our capacities into skimmed profits. The real revolution will be through resingularisation. But until we understand ourselves as residents not tourists, we will continue a neoliberal politic of differentiation; individualising and memorialising with élan our smooth virtual perfection—networked stasis—in the face of actually-existing death, violence and scarcity.

Continue reading “Blueprints for recapacitation: critiquing virtual reality as a (para-)site of care through an analysis of ‘San Junipero’ (2016)”

m.a.d.

<Today in a class with Harry Gamboa Jr, he asked us to respond to the idea of nuclear war, following the news that the US declared the desire to withdraw from the US/Russia nuclear arms pact.>

Nuclear War

I think of my Russian friend who has currently given up her passport to the UK government in an attempt to remain – just as the UK rejects all kinds of remainers.

I think of the bureaucracy that stifles resistance. I think of the call on the oppressed to be ‘the bigger man’ in a nonviolent morality that has been taken up as the moral standard for western protest.

I remember the last nuclear scare, between the US and North Korea last year. I was in my hometown, in the bar where my friend has worked for the last five years at least. There’s a huge projection screen, typically showing sports, but this time it was the news. Maybe it was the BBC, but I don’t remember it it being impartial enough. The locals were gathered at the bar and at the table permanently reserved for them. Muttering racist mutterings and making jokes.

I sat with my drink, allowing the media induced panic to wash over me. It was deeply affective. We all continued to drink. It’s funny how matter-of-fact the news presenters can report on the idea of imminent nuclear war. The deeply embedded xenophobia; the control fantasies of old alcoholics in a bar. I suppose we’re in it together. The steady obliteration towards another kind of collapse. One fella, Clarky, already has an open wound on his head.

In another place, near Vegas, a tour guide points to small huts in the desert, telling us that’s where they keep the missiles —

accelerating towards area 51.

In the nuclear testing museum, sponsored by those who make such weapons, there’s an area 51 exhibit. Mutation fantasies, an escape to the sky as ours is crashing down. It’s a shame the prosthetics and fake aliens are so shit.

Who is there with the placards, welcoming our destruction?

Autonomy of Affect – Brian Massumi

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tWWhGuldaKZGsXzlC5j3c7Z31lqQRirs/view?usp=sharing

When approaching this text, I was thinking of the extra-textual influences that run through it – particularly those of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, and cyberpunk philosophies that come out of that. Also I did a course on subjectivity this last year, so this focuses a little more on processes of subjectification which for Guattari are part of an ethico-aesthetic paradigm.

Firstly, the story of the brain, or, the missing half-second.

In some ways, it’s a three tier process, in which personal experience only gets a look in at this third level. I want to emphasise that these are not clearly delineated levels, but is just a simplified schema, roughly borrowed from Mark Fisher’s PHD thesis ‘Flatline Constructs’, in which he posits the Gothic Flatline, or, the idea that we are as ‘dead’ as the machines – radical immanence:

Level one, is a storm of electrical data, or, the autonomic reaction.

Level two, is the data transfer, from one sense or process to another.

Level three, is where personal experience gets in, reducing the complexity into something expressible.

Deleuze and Guattari outline something similar in their 1972 book, Anti-Oedipus:

“This is tantamount to saying that the subject is produced as a mere residuum alongside the desiring-machines, or that he confuses himself with this third productive machine and with the residual reconciliation that it brings about: a conjunctive synthesis of consummation in the form of a wonderstruck “So that’s what it was!” […] “So it’s me!”” Guattari/Deleuze – Anti-Oedipus, p.17-18

The subjective process here – so that’s what it was, it’s me – is secondary to the primary emotion experienced as the intensities, becomings and transitions which Massumi conceptualises as ‘affect’, autonomous to the subject yet immanent to it and exerting influence.

Page 35: “Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is. […] Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them.”

In a lecture titled ‘Perception Attack’, Massumi gives an easily relatable example of this:

“We need only think of attention. Attention is the base-state habit of perception. Every awareness begins in a shift. We think of ourselves as directing the shifts in our attention. But if you pay attention to paying attention, you quickly sense that rather than you directing your attention, your attention is directing you.” [emphasis added]

You are already caught up in rhythms of perception, happening before you can know it, or as Massumi says:

Page 30: “For the present is lost with the missing half second, passing too quickly to be perceived, too quickly, actually, to have happened. […] Something that happens too quickly to have happened, actually, is virtual. […] The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies, is a realm of potential.”

So as we glance around this room at one another, or the objects in this space, the primacy of our conscious control is a consensual myth of subjectivity, we simply respond to intentions as they arise. Which opens to other arguments around free will and so on. For Spinoza, the mind is an idea of the body, and affect is that which impinges upon, affects, the body and is at the same time the idea of affection (31). So, if the body is always pre-consciously reacting, pretending towards, can we really be said to have free will as we (self-)consciously (desire to) understand it?

Page 29: “Will and consciousness are subtractive. They are limitative, derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed.”

This reflective intension to be understood as a passage through Bergsonian virtuality rather than domineering humanist self-determination.

Page 39: “Theoretical moves aimed at ending Man end up making human culture the measure and meaning of all things in a kind of unfettered anthropomorphism precluding […] articulations of cultural theory and ecology. It is meaningless to interrogate the relation of the human to the nonhuman if the nonhuman is only a construct of human culture, or inertness.”

Second, the story of the brainless, Ronald Reagan, and other presidential candidates:

Page 40: “The only conclusion is that Reagan was an effective leader not in spite of but because of his double dysfunction. He was able to produce ideological effects by non-ideological means, a global shift in the political direction of the United States by falling apart. His means were affective. Once again: affective, as opposed to emotional. This is not about empathy of emotive identification, or any form of identification for that matter.”

Ideology rarefies, closing off the possibility that anything could be different, turning what is becoming into something fixed and permanent, distant from the lives and concerns of ordinary people. It is impossible to understand part of the system without placing it into relation to the whole system, the totality, which isn’t one thing, but a set of relations. This whole is not given to us in experience, it has to be constructed in consciousness, and from our situatedness.

In his experimental book, The Atrocity Exhibition from 1970, J.G. Ballard has a chapter titled, ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, which prefiguratively echoes Massumi’s argument on page 106:

“created a scenario of the conceptual orgasm,
The conceptual role of Reagan. Fragments of Reagan’s cinetized postures were used in the construction of model psychodramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counsellor, etc. The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the non-functional character of Reagan. Reagan’s success therefore indicates society’s periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which re-formulate the roles of aggression and anality.”

Reagan, as a series of posture concepts, a non-functional character, allows for his reconceptualisation. To return to Deleuze and Guattari, the “So that’s what it was” recurs via the institutional frameworks, apparatuses of capture, an oedipal reduction:

Page 41: “[Reagan] was unqualified and without content. But, his incipience was prolonged by technologies of image transmission and then relayed by apparatuses such as the family or the church or the school or the chamber of commerce, which in conjunction with the media acted as part of the nervous system of a new and frighteningly reactive body politic. […] Receiving apparatuses fulfilled the inhibitory, limitative function. They selected one line of movement, one progression of meaning, to actualize and implant locally. This is why Reagan could be so many things to so many people […] Because he was actualized, in their neighbourhood, as a movement and a meaning of their selection.”

This inhibitory, limitative function forms Deleuze and Guattari’s criticism of the apparatus of psychoanalysis, and advertising has its roots in psychoanalysis, a dreary prefiguration of selection:

“How could the conjunctive synthesis of “So that’s what it was!” and “So it’s me!” have been reduced to the endless dreary discovery of Oedipus: “So it’s my father, my mother”? […] We merely see how very little the consumption of pure intensities has to do with family figures, and how very different the connective tissue of the “So it’s…” is from the Oedipal tissue.” Guattari/Deleuze – Anti-Oedipus, p.20.

This confidence in the media, and in the social apparatuses to react, is echoed in the political (non-)strategy of Donald Trump. Trump activated the media in a very similar way to what Massumi proposes as the (non-)function of Reagan, and as Massumi says, “Confidence is the emotional translation of affect as capturable life potential” (41). Michael Moore’s new film 11/9 laid out how Trump got the media to actualise contradictory narratives in the path of their selection, hyperstitioning the contentless into actuality.

In his 1989 text, The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari likens Donald Trump as “another form of algae” in the realm of social ecology, “permitted to proliferate unchecked”. Guattari goes on to say that “We live in a time when it is not only animal species that are disappearing; so too are the words, expressions, and gestures of human solidarity.” (135 3eco)

What do these pure intensities have to do with family figures, as Deleuze and Guattari ask? Well, the family figure is what is immediately available to us, conceptually. The totality is not immediately available to us, which is why awful shitty right wing conservative politicians such as Margaret Thatcher can make statements such as “There is no such thing as society”, because society is not immediately available to us through experience, it has to be constructed through consciousness, through practice. Ideas such as society are ideologically mystified in this context, enabling the disappearance of the gestures of human solidarity. It is much easier to have a reactive body politic that deals with the immediate than an active, engaged practice that deals with complexity and interrelationality. Capitalism itself is not given in experience, it has to be constructed as a system of relations.

This was the aim of feminist consciousness raising groups, which used experience as their raw material in order to open a reflective space in which to draw out commonality and construct a political consciousness. They understood the process by which a lack of class consciousness becomes self consciousness (class in the expanded social and/or economic sense), in which we blame ourselves for how we feel (personalising it) rather than the outside causes of our subjugation (depersonalising it). This may manifest as shame.

Q: I turn to this because of Massumi’s own interest in the political potential of affect, and I wonder what the emergent countertactics, or collective, could and can be? I see consciousness raising practices as one such mode:

Page 44: “In North America at least, the far right is far more attuned to the imagistic potential of the postmodern body than the established left and has exploited that advantage for at least the last two decades. Philosophies of affect, potential, and actualization may aid in finding countertactics.”

Finally, the economic picture and speculative valorisation of ‘emergent collectivity’:

In the conclusion of Massumi’s text we see him turn to questions of value and economic considerations. This is the work I have seen him continue to elaborate on with his collaborator Erin Manning, and the SenseLab.

Page 44: “[…] the commentators are operating under the assumption that the stock market registers affective fluctuations in adjoining spheres more directly than properly economic indicators. Are they confused? Not according to certain economic theorists who, when called upon to explain to a nonspecialist audience the ultimate foundation of the capitalist monetary system, answer “faith”.”

Page 45: “The ability of affect to produce an economic effect more swiftly and surely than economics itself means that affect is a real condition, as intrinsic variable of the late capitalist system, as infrastructural as a factory. […] it is everywhere […] It is beyond infrastructural. It is transversal.”

This has developed into a project they call the Three Ecologies Process Seed Bank (lol) which they imagine as a form of cryptoeconomy/currency which valorises the qualitative, which is speculative, rather than the quantitative. A qualitative becoming rather than a quantitative being. It borrows heavily from Guattari’s Three Ecologies:

We live now under a capitalist system of valorization, in which value is based upon a general equivalent. What makes that system reprehensible is its crushing of all other modes of valorization, which thus find themselves alienated from capitalist hegemony. That hegemony, however, can be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential productions, and determined neither in terms of abstract labour time, nor of expected capitalist profit. Computerization in particular has unleashed the potential for new forms of ‘exchange’ of value, new collective negotiations, whose ultimate product will be more individual, more singular, more dissensual forms of social action. Our task – one which encompasses the whole future of research and artistic production – is not only to bring these exchanges into existence; it is to extend notions of collective interest to encompass practices which, in the short term, ‘profit’ no one, but which are, in the long run, vehicles of processual enrichment. It should be stressed here that the promotion of existential values and the values of desire offers no ready-made global alternatives. Any such alternatives will be the product of more general shifts in existing value systems; of the gradual -emergence of new poles of valorization.” [emphasis added] (146 3ecologies)

Project summary taken from https://thenewinquiry.com/a-cryptoeconomy-of-affect/: “Named after Guattari’s notion of the three interconnected “ecologies” of the mental, social, and environmental, the Institute’s project is to digitally codify offline qualities and affects so that they can then be tokenized as a unit of the cryptocurrency, and in turn exchanged for fiat money—generating cash from a reading group. Much of the platform has already been conceptualized, but the key obstacle remaining is to invent what they call an affect-o-meter: the specific computational mechanism that can turn a quality that hangs in the air into the binary quantities of machine code.”

However, I have my reservations on a project that appears to want to monetise affect, even as part of an alternative economy, I am skeptical of it being subsumed. On top of that Manning and Massumi claim that:

Neoliberalism is our natural environment. [ick] We therefore operate with what we call strategic duplicity. This involves recognizing what works in the systems we work against. Which means: We don’t just oppose them head on. We work with them, strategically, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very different directions.”

Which at the end of the day relies on the development of an ‘affect-o-meter’, which they’re still trying to invent, in order to monetise these emergent collectivities. Does this not just attempt to quantify the qualitative, whilst reinforcing the existing competitive modes of monetising excess (valorising productivity perhaps i.e. you haven’t done your daily affect for money) rather than seeking to collectively support everyone (our lives our important no matter how productive we are, our productivity shouldn’t be valorised, but we should have the space to enter processes of enrichment)? I’m skeptical of the method, following what happened with bitcoin. This feels a little game-showy, a little carrot and stick if done badly. But maybe I’m wrong.

The affect-o-meter seems to be a way of quantifying the qualitative, rather than the vehicles of processual enrichment which Guattari speaks of.

To rephrase, my concern over the affect-o-meter is the potential for its use in the service economy and the experiential economy. That a machine such as the affect-o-meter could be used as another form of surveillance and performance monitoring. So, for example, a waiter in a restaurant. On the table they are serving, an ‘affect-o-meter’ sits, monitoring the qualitative experience of the diners. If the diners have a pleasurable experience, the affect-o-meter produces a quantity of fiat money which can be used in a performance review. This is my concern, how it can be subsumed to further the contemporary states and economies of neoliberal precarity and performance reviews.

Notes on hope and zombies

Hope

“Once we know what we want, we’re no longer alone, the world repopulates. Everywhere there are allies, closenesses, and an infinite graduation of possible friendships. [Hope] is the best agent of the maintenance of order […] an immense pedagogy of waiting.” p.10 The Invisible Committee – Now

On reading this passage, I was reminded of Mark Fisher’s k-punk post titled ‘Abandon hope (summer is coming)’. http://k-punk.org/abandon-hope-summer-is-coming/

Quoting Deleuze, he writes “There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”, referring to Spinoza’s idea that “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” So hope and fear are interchangeable, passive affects that arise from our incapacity to actually act.

Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. […] the condition of hope is passivity. […]

We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act.

Mark asks:

Whereas hope and fear are superstitious (although they may have some hyperstitional effects), confidence is essentially hyperstitional: it immediately increases the capacity to act, the capacity to act increases confidence, and so on – a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous spiral.

So how are we to rebuild our confidence? While the conditions are difficult – and in England, they are about to get much more difficult – we can still act, and act imminently and immanently. How?

Going on to outline a number of possible actions to take:

  1. Socialisation beyond social media
  2. Knowing someone in this life feels as desperate as me (consciousness raising)
    1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel
    2. Talk to opponents
    3. Create knowledge exchange labs
    4. Create social spaces
    5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively
    6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda
    7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption
    8. Develop hub struggles (example: miners’ strike) to swarm to

Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….

This call for the confidence to act resonates both with Now and the slogans of ‘68, the latter was arguably a ‘hub struggle’ as Mark puts it. The slogans establish new social spaces – the beaches of the street – generate new figures of loathing – the bosses – disrupts logistically – no more calls for higher wages, instead abolish the system – and the slogans themselves articulate a culture of feeling and constitute a form of public consciousness raising.

“Decision is what traces in the present the manner and possibility of acting, of making a leap that is not into the void.” p.11 The Invisible Committee – Now

But, “The idea of a ‘precariat’ conveniently hides the fact that there is simply no longer a shared experience of work, even precarious work.” p.14 The Invisible Committee – Now

In a society that has abolished all adventures, the only adventure left is to abolish society. (Slogan from May ’68)

 

Zombies

Live without dead time – enjoy without chains

Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can breathe and many say, “We will breathe later”. And most of them don’t die because they are already dead. 

These two slogans from ‘68, and the presence of death or the already-dead made me think on the figure of the zombie. The Haitian history of the zombie presents the horror of dehumanisation during slavery – zombie labourers and their uprising.

Yet performance artist Martin O’Brien speaks of living in ‘zombie time’ as someone with cystic fibrosis. For him, zombies embody a fear of infection in popular culture, an abject body bereft of subjectivity and individual identity. This dis-easing of a non-dead population when faced with the un-dead raises questions about mortality and living itself – how do we know we’re breathing?

“The zombie able to challenge the human understand of mortality: a body bereft of subjectivity and individual identity, once dead but now living again, but simultaneously still dead. The zombie is rotting flesh, animated and stumbling. Curiously, most of the common representations of the zombie depict it as motivated only by its need for survival as a species. The zombie bites in order to both feed and create more zombies. The population of the zombie can only increase as the population of the human decreases. The zombie is both human and non-human animal, it is both dead and alive, it is something to both fear and pity.”

O’Brien joked at a conference that “zombies are anti-capitalist, because in films they bring about the fall of capitalism.” Does the ‘zombification’ of a population in this ‘dead time’ bring about the end? A zombie uprising.

“[…] The bite reduces the other into a piece of meat [or data?]. It establishes a relationship between two people predicated upon predator/prey dynamics. Or perhaps it is an inbuilt fear of contagion associated with the mouth of another.”

Martin O’Brien – ‘Flesh-Eaters: Notes Towards a Zombie Methodology’, November 24th 2015. https://www.olats.org/trustme/04-MartinOBrien.pdf.

Tinnitus as a process of protest

The text from a talk I gave on Friday 8th June at Goldsmiths, as part of the GLITS Sound and Silence conference. I might post a more thorough response to some of the great questions I received, but between this and Consciousness Razing on the 9th, I’m feeling a little worn out. But thank you to Stian for sharing the panel with me, and thank you to the GLITS team for organising and thank you to the audience for being so brilliant and responsive to what I had to say! Was the confidence boost I needed after a rough first year of my MA… Not everything is properly cited, but feel free to ask…

*****

Hello everyone, first I want to thank the organisers for putting together this event.

Today I am going to speak about tinnitus as a process of protest.

In The Five Senses by Michel Serres, he outlines ‘three kinds of audible’, the body, the environment and the collective. I will be using these three types as a framework to structure the first section of this paper, beginning with the body, then environment, then collective.

I shall then move on in the second section to speak about the privatisation of stress and the media. And I will close with the third section by opening the question of new political compositions that resist appropriated life.

Serres is a French philosopher, who has been working at Stanford University in close proximity to Silicon Valley since 1984. An online article describes his writing as “like a slow night of constant drinking, taking us irreversibly to places we didn’t know we were heading towards.” The Five Senses has the subtitle, A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, and he writes of the complex tapestry of the body, whose underside is riddled with knots, joins, planes, loops and bindings. Thresholds, interference and transitions are all integral to the mixed sensations that Serres speaks of. It is through this that the richness of sensation is experienced.

But let’s begin with the first kind of audible, the body.

Section one: Serres 

Body

Serres writes that the primary source of noise is within the body, the murmurings of which the ear sometimes strains to hear, stimuli produced and perceived within the organism, connected to the position in and movements of the body. Serres writes that there are “billions of cells dedicated to biochemical reactions, the likes of which should have us all fainting from the pressure of their collective hum.” (5S,106) Using Serres’ framework, the neurological sounds of tinnitus are the bodily source, the body reformatted into hearing hums of synaptic agencies, geological residues,[1] ordinarily imperceptible. To hear the bodily sounds is to be sick.

Tinnitus is commonly understood as a ringing in the ears. It is known as a phantom sound, a sound heard without the presence of an external noise. Tinnitus is a recurring trope on the animated spy show Archer, from which I’ll play a very short clip:

http://www.infinitelooper.com/?v=_y6gWO3mZMo&p=n

I chose Archer, because the sound effect of high frequency ringing they use is the closest to what my own tinnitus sounds like, although there are many different sounds and forms.

This paper will focus on subjective tinnitus, where the head or ear noises are only perceivable by the sufferer and are typically traced to auditory or neurological reactions to hearing loss. Other forms exist, such as objective tinnitus, where the tinnitant sounds can be heard both by the sufferer and someone else, for example the pulsing of excessive blood flow in the ear or the clicking of bones, however this objective form is extremely rare.[2]

Many of you may be familiar with temporary tinnitus, which is a common occurrence after a loud concert, for example, or other exposure to what would be understood in medical terms as acoustic trauma, such as a sudden loud noise, and the ringing in your ears may last from a few minutes to several days. However the impact of a sudden noise trauma can be permanent, for example shellshock can cause permanent damage, such as hearing loss and tinnitus.

As a symptom, tinnitus is not a recent phenomenon. Although the particular reasons for its widespread affectation are historically contingent, shifting with the material conditions of the times. Tinnitus has numerous triggers and forms, and a UK specialist named David Baguley says he believes “there are about as many triggers as there are people with tinnitus.”

Evading clear diagnosis, it is a nuisance for sufferers and the scientific establishment alike. The statistics for those who suffer from chronic tinnitus make it an astonishingly common condition. In the UK, just under half of adults will have experienced some form of tinnitus, with around 10% suffering from chronic or prolonged tinnitus, and around 1-3% finding it negatively impacts their everyday activity,[3] beyond the common complaints of disturbed sleep and annoyance. To give a figure, that’s around 6 million people[4] in the UK who hear tinnitant noises almost consistently.

For Serres, “what the deaf hear are neither signals nor voices, but tinnitus; hellish shrieks; high-pitched, strained, monotonous cries that drive you mad. This dreadful torture condemns them to a life of music. Their lives become a tricky balancing act, as they strive to maintain an equilibrium between the layer of music and the chaotic bombardment of noise.” (5S,106) This characterisation of tinnitus as torture is a common across philosophical, medical and media discourse – a description I believe to not be particularly useful for the lived experience of having a condition such as tinnitus, in its chronic temporality. Shifting away from this characterisation is a necessary step in order to make the tinnitant experience less isolating and to open out to new affects and creative compositions.

Environment

The second source of noise, for Serres, is that of the environment. These sounds are “spread over the world: thunder, wind, surf, bird, avalanches, the terrifying rumbling that precedes earthquakes, cosmic events.” (5S,107) These sounds are resolved into information by the ear, and subsequently these environmental sounds become analogical, the projected and folded sounds of the world mapped in, upon and beyond the synaptic. The information taken in from the world through the ear, becomes translated into language, an attempt to find a way of passing on information and describing the sounds coming from within. Passing from reality to language.

Literary and sound studies scholar Steven Connor outlines some of historic sonic analogies for tinnitus, saying that “Writers on tinnitus rarely fail to be impressed by their range and variety. [Adam] Politzer included sounds that resembled waterfalls, ringing bells, the buzzing of a swarm of bees, the swish of leaves in a wood, the rumbling of a train, the chirping of crickets and twittering of birds.” Connor goes on to say that in 1853, William Wilde put forward the popular idea that descriptions of tinnitant noises were influenced deeply by their environment, proposing: “a class-inflected atlas of tinnitus referents. Thus, country folk will draw their similitudes from falling or flowing water, the sounds of birds and bees and the rustling of leaves, but urban sufferers will hear their tinnitus echoed in industrial noises and the rolling of carriages.”[5]

The way we describe and experience our bodily sounds is closely linked to our social situations and lived environments, in an attempt to make a relation with, to name and to communicate something we do not yet know. For example, I have always thought of my tinnitus as sounding like various electronic sounds, from electrical hum, the ping of a CRT television turning on and the high pitched fuzz of the static, or even the low quality sound of rain when illegally streaming a film online. I also wear earplugs at night, this dam creating an inner, inland sea with an oceanic hum and the crashing of waves. This further interference influenced by the compression of my jaw, the pressure of my ear on the pillow and the vibratory movements of housemates in the interlinked hallways and bedrooms.

A BBC Radio 4 show called The Digital Human has an episode titled Silence. In this episode, the use of environmental noise in order to achieve ‘mental silence’ is advocated for those with tinnitus. One section of the show features Scottish sound artist Cavan Campbell who records natural silence

– conjuring up images of Andy Serkis as Martin Hannett in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party  People (1min) –

Campbell does this in order to create natural soundscapes from across Scotland. He campaigns for the protection of natural silence in the face of increased man-made noise pollution. On the show, Campbell claims that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”[6] I will return to this a little later.

Cavan Campbell’s final point on the show is he speaks of how, for example, the low frequencies produced by Atlantic waves resonate in our bones and that busy environments also have lots of low frequencies. This means that our bodies can feel the difference. Our skin and bones becoming part of the auditory system, vibrating from the touch of the environment. The skin is a generalised eardrum.

Collective

The last source of sound comes from the collective, noise being what defines the social for Serres. Being part of the group means that we don’t hear its noise. Serres writes that this noise: “surpass[es] the others by far, often to the point of cancelling them both out: silencing the body, silencing the world. […] society makes a colossal noise, the latter increases in direct proportion to the former, the town rat can be distinguished from the country rat by its immunity to this din.” (5S,107)

In The Five Senses, the collective is established as something intoxicated with communication. The collective notices little outside of itself, devoting itself to its own noise and revelling in it. Serres writes that “It resembles a sick body, rumbling from the clamour of its own organs.” (5S,89) But then going on to confirm that the collective is not sick, but intoxicated. Veiled in language, the world is silenced and the collective is immune, its developed tolerance meaning it cannot hear itself.

Tinnitus is bodily sound made audible, an apparent consequence of collective noise. (In a book called The Glands that Regulate Personality, Louis Berman writes that “the outcries of the wretched and miserable, the gray-and-dreary lived din an unmanageable tinnitus in our ears.” Another rather grim example comes from Jimmy Savile, who says that his tinnitus doesn’t bother him in the slightest, he calls it a friend that reminds him of all the girls and the discos). Collective noise cancels out environmental noise and tinnitant sounds cancel out environmental silence. The amplifications of the body being mistaken for environmental sounds may be a timid desire for serenity. If, as Cavan Campbell says, the equilibrium of environmental silence is to hear the presence of everything. This means to hear everything without its cancelling out or disturbance by the collective din or tinnitus.

Silence is then yearned for as something lost. For those with tinnitus, things such as silence and birdsong can become obsessive fixations. I want to be careful here to not make or romanticise the separation between culture and nature. Silence, the serenity of silence becomes both poison and cure. Serres speaks of the restorative qualities of silence, for Serres silence is healing. However, what of those like myself who cannot hear silence as it is understood? The fixation on the ability to be able to hear silence becomes poison, when not being silence-hearing means that for the tinnitant individual there may be the loss of the feeling that life is worth living – to follow Bernard Stiegler.  The desire to not be sick, to not be listening in new ways, to not be listening in ways that can annoy one or make one uncomfortable under current political conditions. This can lead individuals, such as the suicidal Essex pensioner whom I will speak about later, to take permanent action in order to achieve “some peace and quiet”.

Although yes, perhaps environmental silence, in its eeriness, can be a “detachment from the urgencies of the everyday.” Tinnitus chronically cancelling out the environmental sounds as an apparent consequence of collective noise, can increase stress, disturb sleep and cause annoyance. In extreme, it is reactively acknowledged as the loss of the feeling that life is worth living. When taken in its popular understanding that it occurs because of an individual failing to protect their health or as the loss of ability, the differential listening of tinnitus can be hard to reconcile.

For the conservative organism, life is expected and managed by the attachment to the ‘natural’ and normal, securitising itself against the unknown and the uncomfortable. However what we understand as natural and normal is a construction. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan diagnoses a tendency that with each new environment, there is an act of collective cannibalism, because the

“previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the “content” of the new industrial environment. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. […] More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automaton, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order.”[7]

For example, to cope with this collective tinnitant-pollutant, the commodity form of synthetic ‘environmental silence’ is developed instead. These recorded ‘sounds of nature’ are amplified in order to ironically manage and cancel out the collective din, pumped through earbuds and lounges. In the cacophony of the collective new environments are built, building a new construction of the self when the old is undermined by tinnitus.

For people who are first faced with the weirdness of tinnitus, which disrupts the known, psychologists such as Laurence McKenna praise the benefits of projection into the mundane, “[people] who may initially even think [tinnitus is] the noise of the central heating, are easier for us to treat, because they aren’t panicked.”[8] This minimises the disruption, tries to make it mundane and controllable. Although arguably, this is a mundane process, an amplification of synaptic rhythms that were always already occurring. Why are we so fearful of tinnitus? What produces the noise that makes you feel uncomfortable? What generates the noise that troubles you?

I do not intend to enter into a reformist narrative of how we should make friends with tinnitus without changing the conditions that have brought it about, or rather without challenging the neoliberal demand to control tinnitus within environments and structures that increase stress, annoyance and depression. The demand to hear silence, to be normal, is a reduction of the possibilities that tinnitus may present us with. Partially this is because of how it has been framed by medical discourse and the media and the subsequent therapeutic imaginary of self-transformation purported by these. How can you rely on yourself when your sense of self has been undermined by tinnitus? How can we compose ourselves differently to shift from perceived neurosis and make use of other procedures (following Felix Guattari) that are more collective, more social, more political?

The mingling of the senses, the complex layering and implications of the sounds that are audible to us is our lived experience. In the noise of the media, these minglings are reduced, formalised and spectacularised in order to portray discourses that are typically unhelpful and exercise power over people. I will outline some moments that have stood out to me now.

Section two:

What generates the noise that troubles you? (D.Bauer)

The media

I should be more specific when I say media, which for now I mean radio and more specifically BBC Radio. I have heard shows about tinnitus on Radio 2, 4 and 5 live.

Radio 2 is perhaps the most bizarre because it was a segment on the Jeremy Vine Show. For those that don’t know who Jeremy Vine is, he hosts a call in show every weekday lunchtime where members of the public as well as experts can chime in on particular topics. For this particular broadcast, Vine reels off the discussion topics: “today we’ll be discussing immigration, tinnitus, whether the private sector is prejudiced against the public sector and comedy”. I don’t think anything exposes the state of British popular media more than that list. Anyway, the second segment opens with Vine’s characteristic brashness of which I will play you a clip:

“A pensioner from Essex was so tormented by the sound of screaming in his ears that he shot himself in the head. […] his wife told the court that ‘all he wanted was some peace and quiet.’ […] listen to this and see how long you can bear it before you want to turn the radio down.  – noise –  Now that white noise is what someone with tinnitus may hear every minute of the day. And if that wasn’t bad enough, this is another […]  – noise – Or can you imagine this incessant banging in your ears, like the neighbours are doing DIY, when you are trying to sleep? This is tinnitus as well – noise – The British Tinnitus Association provided us with those sounds […] It’s, it’s almost like torture.”[9]  (Clip is about 1:15min)

Google Drive link for Jeremy Vine (for those without access to BBC iPlayer)

Like Serres, we have this characterisation of tinnitus as torture. In his typically derisive tone, Vine presents, with a sad irony, the Essex pensioner’s suicide as mere foible; stresses ‘abnormal’ experience as torture.

Later in the show, Vine attempts to incite a standard-blame game when speaking to Crystal Rolfe from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), he barely listens to what she is saying in order to get the soundbite answer he wants. He asks repeatedly, “if a young person is listening to music with earphones and you can hear it, is it too loud?” This characterises Vine’s debate around tinnitus as a surface-level criticism and lacking depth, not only this but being outright dangerous in its reporting of suicide.

Getting a yes from Crystal, puts into public discourse that tinnitus is just the fault of irresponsible young people with loud music. Those who listen to earphones too loudly apparently lack the capacity for self-care, and this attempts to shame and discipline them publicly. Although wearing earphones could be seen as a mark of survival in the midst of semiotic pollution.

A dialogue between Mark Fisher and poet Sam Berkson published on the Quietus engages with thoughts on earphone wearing. Fisher names the number of adverts on the London tube and buses, ‘semiotic pollution’ to which Berkson says that the only sensible response is to put earphones on, to not look at the surroundings and to shut your senses off. Berkson believes this to be a terrible position for people to be in, to be unaware of your surrounds, however to be present in the space is simply to be surrounded by what Fisher terms the ‘massive cyber-blitz of adverts in London’. Fisher remarks that “It is not that people tune out of public space – there is no public space for them to be in anyway. It is either a case of a certain kind of immersion or in this babble – the babble of competing mobile phone voices, or the babble of capital, shouting at you to buy something. […] I think certain kinds of disconnection are needed now. Unplugging from certain kinds of networks.”[10]

Holding this in mind, I want to play you the clip of Vine speaking to Crystal Rolfe. (9:40ish to about 10:33)

(Sounds more like Vine had an issue on the tube this morning.)

In such discourses, there is a privatisation of stress. People have to securitise themselves against tinnitus in the first place, a fear of becoming permanently damaged instilled in the public imagination. Then if tinnitus does occur, it has to be contained and managed lest it be ‘unmanageable’. Much of the medical or therapeutic literature speaks of tinnitus management. Because of this discourse, I think of Mark Fisher’s business ontology, “in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”

I wanted to note that the white noise that appeared towards the end of the clip I just played was not part of the original broadcast. I recorded the audio because I didn’t trust BBC iPlayer to work, using a programme called Audio Hijack in order to record Jeremy Vine’s show. Very fittingly, when the free trial runs out – which it did about halfway through the programme – it layers white noise over the recording. The use of noise in this context is to interfere with public access, causing enough annoyance (like spotify ads) in order to encourage you to purchase the full software, which means the white noise is removed.

This is noise used to deter theft. Noise used in the service of capital. Noise that expands in the space, unwanted noise filling the recording. Noise you cannot edit or tune out, only mask. The disciplining noise of a mosquito tone. Noise as deterrent.

In this world of self-management and business ontology, we invest in ourselves, we practice self-care both through consumption and cutting back. Desire is filtered into products that simply mask our noise, this self-belief and apparent autonomy is individuated, made serial and purchasable. The individual capacity to care or to enjoy is obscured by tinnitus. And the collective capacity to care and enjoy is obscured by capital. Tinnitus presents a challenge to how we compose ourselves under neoliberal capitalism.

For example, to return to the BBC Radio 4 show Digital Human, the show uses statements such as “how people feel about silence depends on who they are” and “silence is the absence of sounds we don’t like.”[11] This individualising discourse which suggests silence is both a given and a choice over which we have autonomy, peaks in Isobel Anderson’s improvement story. Belfast based musician Anderson learns to manage her tinnitus and subsequently begins denouncing people as feeling ‘entitled’[12] to silence which she understands as because of the availability of curated sound environments. However, her concurrent claim is that tinnitus is a problem of the nervous system and that for anyone who is angry, stressed or upset then there is no such thing as silence.

Anderson’s turnaround is symptomatic of a therapeutic imaginary under neoliberalism, as outlined in Mark Fisher’s writings. As the public sphere privatises stress, the management of illness and emotions is under duress by the claim that such issues can be solved through individual self-transformation with the assistance of a private therapist. Fisher’s text, ‘No Romance Without Finance’ states that, “where consciousness-raising pointed to impersonal and collective structures”[13] – which Anderson vaguely acknowledges with her comments on stress – “neoliberalism sees only individuals, choices and personal responsibility”[14] – demonstrated by Anderson’s condemnation of ‘entitlement’ which forecloses the material struggles around mental and aural health as well as Vine’s earphoned scapegoats.

Fisher writes of how austerity insists that the lower classes manage their desires, to take pride in self-management and in a supposed independence from others. Yet the working classes are also depicted as apparently incapable of self-determination, as lacking the capacity for self-care, and are subsequently subjected to intensive disciplining in popular discourse. This shows that knowledge and awareness in itself does nothing to change the structural issues which fix the subject within the double bind of self-realisation and absolute dependence engendered by the proliferation of therapeutic and medical orthodoxies. It’s worth noting here you can have CBT for tinnitus.

In an article by Mack Hagood titled Listening to Tinnitus: Roles of Media When Hearing Breaks Down, Hagood explores his realisation that the experience, discourse and treatment of tinnitus is bound up in mediation, and subsequently how and where aural media studies could go with this. In Hagood’s text I was surprised to read the following: “In the process of externalizing their experience for others to hear, people with tinnitus can make their own perception of the sound grow stronger. They may also generate anxiety in others, encouraging them to notice and problematize their own, previously benign tinnitus.”[15]

The consensual reality is one where silence can be heard, proven precarious by tinnitus. Hagood’s comment reminds me of a post I saw on the TinnitusTalk forum with the heading “Can You Create Your Own Tinnitus?” Other forum users responded with claims such as “tinnitus is contagious” and that “everyone can hear these sounds if they listen and then when they label it it becomes permanent.”[16] Reactive fears of tinnitant infection and contagion[17] are formed through a rejection of the sick body teeming with imperceptible agencies. Hearing the body in this way, beyond consensual reality of silence-hearing and wellbeing, agitates fear understood as a subjective deficiency rather than difference, morphing into guilt and inferiority or hatred and resentment.

Following this contagion thought, Hagood writes of how incorrect information can induce bothersome tinnitus, information being something circulated through media. He proposes that it may be productive to think of tinnitus as a ‘communicable dis-ease’, which he understands is “strengthened in circulation through networks of neurons, discourse and media.”

Although Hagood does goes on to write that “there is both a need and an opportunity in tinnitus for an applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality. Listening to tinnitus as a networked coproduction highlights the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated”

If tinnitus is, as Hagood says, “hard to objectify as subject of research and treatment or worthy of empathy and activism”, then how do we enter into a relationship with it and step into the unknown, in order to shift our whole relation to the body and the world, rather than simply writing ourselves off as faulty? If tinnitus cannot be silenced, how can we respond and compose with its affective differential tones?

Barbara Streisand talks about her tinnitus: (2min)

Section three: Political Compositions

An Editor’s Note from The New Inquiry issue titled Sick reads:

“Being sick changes your relation to your body and how you inhabit it. As an experience, it is stubbornly untheoretical, even though it oozes theory, infecting concepts of cleanliness, system, and body with its disorder. Mutated understandings proliferate from sickness that lance falsely clear categories, revealing the orderliness of the world to be a form of disease.” [18]

Medicine and media reduce the complexity of the mingled and unmanaged relations that occur between the body, the collective and the environment. Taking biological so called ‘anomalies’ as the sole source of distress is an effective way to erase the structures that impinge on our lives.

Tinnitus is an emerging protest from the collective: the low level whine, a bodily protest. When the tinnitant subject tries to contain itself through isolation, the tinnitant sounds could be, to lend from Mark Fisher, “the sound of the loneliness that happens when consciousness is deflated, and the conditions for raising it are absent.”[19]

Tinnitus destabilises subjectivity, fronting impersonal affects which current conditions mark as a personal deficiency to be managed through methods such as; therapeutic imaginaries (the double bind of self-realisation and absolute dependence), heroic discourses (see: 2017 film Baby Driver), securitising logics, sustaining corporate economies, metrics of improvement, access to use value, erasing bodies from economic considerations. All brutally narrow the forms that health can take, instead promoting momentary relief through consumption, or, through constant surveillance and self-management.

This protest needs more than Vine’s individualised earphoned scapegoats; it needs creative commons. Others will be interrupted and invited to join in the unmanageable rupture of the endemic, to not listen as we know it. Breaking from economical self-management may open out to sounding creative sites of care where the original subject is (dis)integrated; re-insisting on (in)appropriated life and composing in chronic temporalities with others and their intense investments in a particular historical, political and social field.[20]

In order to develop this potential commons, processes of consciousness raising are required. This is not in order to become aware of an already-existing state of affairs, but to shift one’s whole relationship to the world in order to create, to quote Mark Fisher, “a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for.”[21] Rather than fixing it in a single image, sound, language, or rhythm that can be managed through intolerant abstractions, the body is to be increasingly defined, openly and intensively, by the set of affects of which it is capable.[22] The contagious dis-ease of tinnitus is not a terminable limit but intensive communicable potential, because, as radical therapist Viviane Maximino says, “When this body contacts others subjectivities affected by similar forces, they manage to sustain themselves in the destabilization, amplifying the creative processes.”[23]

These creative processes are political processes, establishing care as the common stake in the flourishing of life, replacing securitising logics and the imperatives of profit in favour of sustained experimentation and composition. A new tonal, or rather, tinnitant consistency – an emergent adventure – composing and layering remarkable intensities and affects. Listening, but not as we know it.

Thank you for listening.

Continue reading “Tinnitus as a process of protest”