Affective Tactics: Intensifying a Politics of Perception
tobias c. van Veen
Issue #63, April 2003
At the present juncture of US imperialism and global capitalism, the Left faces the necessity of deploying an immediate global critique on the one hand, and attempting to affirm a global alternative on the other. Although "Another World Is Possible," the Left is increasingly entangled in the defense of its diverse characteristics and strategies of protest, attempting to define and explain "itself" against charges of incoherence from the polyvocally-challenged press and critics of the Right. Meanwhile, the factual and clear arguments of radical historians such as Noam Chomsky go unheeded. While human rights-based liberalism is espoused as the catch-all solution, the violent histories of rogue imperial powers remains buried under the glossy headlines of minor anarchist property damage or the technology fetishisms of the state war machine. At the same time, on the home front, the very foundations of Enlightenment, rights-based discourse are quietly eroded worldwide.
Massumi on Media Politics
At the R/Évolutions conference held at Concordia University, Montréal, Brian Massumi argued for an engagement with affect by the Left. I'd like to summarize and expand upon a few aspects of his argument here so we can get to the heart of the matter concerning a tactics of affect. We can begin by noting that the Left has traditionally set to debunking dominant epistemologies with alternative factual reportage and negative critique. While this critique remains necessary in constructing an account of state violence and in undermining hegemonic "truths" in media capitalism, such a critique generally fails to grab the attention of the public — to move the public and sway opinion. It fails to set resistance into motion.
Why is this? One reason, according to Massumi, is the materiality of the televisual medium — television being the dominant media. Television's visual affect, already coded through sound-bites, is constructed visually through heart-and-gut wrenching imagery. The burning Twin Towers are used again and again to retrieve an emotional response from the US public that, although there are exceptions, is overwhelmingly of two types: 1. shock (if not awe) and 2. revenge. With shock there is no speech: the mouth hangs open. What follows next is not discourse, but the reactionary urge to strike back: revenge.
Massumi analyses Bush's lack of discursive reasoning and the blatant tautological structures of White House statements as working on a register that is not of discourse (and thus, "facts and truth") but of affect. It is a direct experience with television. In such perceptual experience, there is no "ideology" — ideology in the sense that the public has been "tricked" into "believing" a dominant discourse. Discourse and affect are of different registers. If it can be said to exist, ideology is constrained to a specific regime of signs and not of the totality. Analyses that claim the structure of the signifier as encompassing the totality of the real have been delimited to a specific, constructed register. The armchair viewer's response is "authentic" as it is a gut feeling: an affect of the body, an experience of the body. We need to analyze this experience for its actuality as an actualization of perception, as an affect of media upon the body. Where this affect is being steered by the state, argues Massumi, is toward a structure of faciality — where the face of the Leader (Bush), becomes directly attuned as the 'face of America', where the flag and the nation become one with the face of the despot. Such a structure is a significant step toward fascism.
Affect, Right and Left
The Right has been cultivating such affective techniques for years. For example, bloody babies and scenes from the Holocaust grace the massive posters of the Genocide Awareness Project, a militant anti-abortion group that equates abortion with genocide. Massumi's suggestion is that the Left open itself to a politics of affect. Affect is neither negative nor positive in itself: it is perception, but also a politics of perception. To negate affect because of its use by the Right and the state is to negate the experience of the body. Coursing through affect is life itself — the affirmative desire of the body, to touch, to feel loved, to be at peace. The Right embraces affect as its inverse: a hate politics of the foreign other (the immigrant, a race, etc.), of the non-believer, of sexuality (hatred of the other's body, of one's own body). The state embraces affect through discipline, conformity, and work. Tied to both the state and the Right are the economic realities of who owns affective media: television, publications, the Internet, radio. Clear Channel ousts a peace-lovin' Dixie Chicks. Or Thing.net is shut down by Verio for hosting a Dow Chemical spoof site.
The strategies of the multitudes in summit protests have already embraced an immediacy of the body and of movement. The ability to walk side-by-side with the multiplicity of others, to accept the risk of the other — being open to hospitality of and toward the other — is what marks protests and walks as memorable, lived experiences that give us the energy, that tingling sensation of the body, to keep trying, to not give up hope, to strike a spark in any direction. It is also what makes "anti-globalization" protest — a perpetual misnomer — unrepresentable in the mono-statement press. "Summit" protests, protests of the multitudes, exceed a politics of representation.
The tactical aspect of affect resonates in two directions. First, how can we touch and reach out to each other, support each other, and energize our movement(s)? An example can be found in the videos of the "Blah Blah Blah" project: "Fourteen film and video-makers from Toronto responded to the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Québec City [by producing] a short video anchored in footage taken at the April summit." The point was neither to engage in pedagogy or a politics of representation, but to produce "artistic home movies for the anti-globalization movement... [for] we shouldn't underestimate the function of rallying the troops and raising morale." As filmmaker and writer Richard Fung notes, "To me art is like food and sex: a basic and persistent human need. Attempts to justify art by citing a social or redemptive function are not just unnecessary, but usually end up trivializing its significance. Still, what better tonic for a sickly planet than good art with good politics?" An affirmative art requires neither justification nor, in the inverse, a politics that serves as justification for art: the two go hand-in-hand, parallel streams that cross and overlap the other, interpenetrate. We could say they work not through a discourse of justification (of "truth and fact"), but through a register of affect. By touching each other, they touch us when we watch, we are touched, we feel for the other...provoked by watching these moving films. A documentary detailing the inhumane conditions of Australia's privately-run "prison camps for immigrants," produced by the Desert Storm Collective, touched me with such a force that I was moved, not in the sense of preached-to or converted (the rhetoric of salvation), but moved to action.
Access to Affect
As a second question, how can the Left touch the public? True, this is the most difficult question. In the formation of this problematic as distinct from the first, there is already created the question of difference and referentiality. The videos of the Blah Blah Blah project seem too "self-referential" to be used as a public tactic. But is this really the case? Should we not begin focusing on what the multitudes offer — namely, a place for everyone who will risk that openness, rather than attempting to "spell out" a specific, and thus delimited if not unilateral position? Are "they," those television viewers complacently fed by a continuous stream of mediatized state and corporate imagery, all that different from "us"? The question broached is one of access. Short of occupying Fox and CNN headquarters and hijacking the airwaves, how can we disseminate dissent?
Perhaps various answers lie in several places — and in as many places as possible. The "public" is a multitude just as the "movement" is a multitude. The Internet and print publications offer the easiest openings and the farthest latitude. War.time, a coalition of net.artists against the war, has already achieved significant press and Netizen attention (see http://offline.area3.net/wartime). Full-page ads in the New York Times have had their effect, including those of Vote to Impeach Bush. Celebrities — including but not limited to Michael Moore — used Oscar airtime to protest against Gulf War II. Independent and campus-community radio carries alternative press and political radio-art. Throughout these various mediums, the nature of the affect of the medium must be taken into consideration. Bombarding radio listeners with censored facts, while a necessary part of an alternative newscast, should be backgrounded to focus on the presentation of calls for involvement, celebrations of multiple ways of resistance, productive encounters with the other that will engage the listener and propel her or him as an active participant. Authoritarian pedagogy risks losing the audience, flipping stations as doomsday scenarios perpetually replay. The primary place of affect will perhaps always be the encounter, "on the street," or what the Sufis call the "breast-to-breast."
Certainly in the negotiation of affect the Left should not turn to either the negative determinants of the Right (hate against the other), nor the empty rallying cries and jingoistic slogans that dominated "Red propaganda" at the beginning of the last century. This is a fine line to be walked — as always, in attempting to affirm life, to affirm lived experience, to affirm the body in action and its engagement with its movement(s). The problematic of affect raises the question of the relation between art and politics that has concerned the Left throughout its history. Is a politicized art not a step toward social realism? What of the links between art and fascism? The question of a pure and a priori non-political art?
In framing the dilemma in this way, we have perhaps already negated its potential. Affect is not necessarily art. Affect is a direct perceptual experience. Art tends to be a way of affecting an-other, and thus often comes into play — but we need no rules over art. In proposing a tactical engagement with affect, which is an engagement with our own bodies — those bodies we put on the line during protest and (direct) action — we are not inscribing a schema of "political art," a justification or judgment of art and aesthetics, nor a call for all "political artists" to only make "political art." In affirming affect, as an affirmation of the body and of perceptual experience, we are first of all affirming the experience of the other — of the television viewer that feels what CNN shows. We are realizing that we cannot judge such a person. We can only strive to offer not only a discursive argument and an alternative history: we must reach the other through the media topology we find ourselves in today. A world of the screen arrives through and with the materiality of the medium, or in finding ways to surpass and subvert its affect. It becomes a careful dance to affirm a positive politics of affect and find ways of assembling what Massumi calls a "politics of perception" in order to elaborate a critique of the utilization and abuse of affect by the state and the Right.
Potential Perceptive Tactics
What can we offer as examples? We've already explored a few, and there are many, some even of the tried-and-true variation, such as AgitProp — although the tactics must be updated, the rhetoric dropped. The Internet is a wealth of opportunity and inspiration for campaigns as well as a way to tap into existing networks. Iraqbodycount.net, Votetoimpeach.org, Riceforpeace.org, Adbusters.org and Baringwitness.org — these are a sampling of websites that offer strategies and forums for the adaptation of techniques to localized situations as well as acting as hyperlink nodes to a wide network of online domains. But we must also think of affect as a tactic of moving the body, and at the core of affect are the senses.
We might consider the use of sound: the sound of bombs falling is rarely broadcasted, for it is terrifying; the same can be said for the joyous sound of protest, for it is potentially revolutionary. A "dissonance CD" is included with Counter Productive, a pocket-sized text of narratives and reports from the Québec City convergence at the 2001 Summit of the Americas. As well as alternative media reports, the CD contains "There's A Risk of Arrest If You Turn Right," a provocative "audioart" piece by Anna Friz and Richard Williams edited from field recordings of the protest. Eight minutes and fifty-eight seconds of audio confrontation between police and protesters conveys a body of resistance. An underlying heavy breathing increases during the piece — as you listen, your own breathing falls in tune: it's a direct political perception.
We must seek (to) touch. On the agenda of an open affect of hospitality and of the multitudes is an engagement with affirmative desire. A consideration of the writings of Hakim Bey on the Temporary Autonomous Zone might teach us to dance and play again in the production of times and spaces of autonomy. From Reclaim the Streets to inducing intensities — we might also take a cue from Spain's La Société Anonyme, who argue for the artist as producer in Parachute 109: "The artist as producer is a generator of narratives of mutual recognition, an inducer of intensified situations of encounter and socialization of experience, and a producer of mediations for their exchange in the public sphere."
And of course we see — and sight remains the privileged and much dissected sensory realm in both theory and practice. At the same time that we strive for alternative visual media to (and on) television, we need to embrace the other senses as alternatives often neglected by the state and the Right: touch, sound, taste, smell. The senses of intimacy, of friendship, of hospitality, of sexuality. At the same time, we need to affirm sight — to look each other in the eye, and to make eye contact with the other. We may find that sight is the gesture of visual touch.
These are speculations and ideas. They may appear overtly — or even overly — simplistic. In a way, these tactics are, although their elaboration requires constant experimentation and the labor of intensive actuality. Such a politics can never remain still, and its work is never finished. Like affect, a politics of perception is always in movement, always seeking new ways to catalyze and intensify. It remains to examine critically the potential affect offers and to trace new possibilities; to produce and follow through the situations we can only speak of here. We need to switch to an affective writing that jumps the register from language to the senses. From writing to action: this essay is such a tactic.
tobias c. van Veen is a turntablist, writer, and sonic net.artist. He is currently embedded in the Department of Communications at McGill University, Montréal and can be found at http://www.quadrantcrossing.org.
Credits: Images courtesy Independent Media Center.
Second image credit Heidi Werntz.