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<nettime> On Readiness
Jordan Crandall on Wed, 9 Aug 2006 22:40:38 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> On Readiness


Ready for Action
Jordan Crandall

[This text will be published in the reader for the exhibition
"Protections" at the Kunsthaus Graz, opening 22 September 2006.  It is
derived from presentations given at the Transmediale 06 conference in
Berlin and the ARS06 conference in Helsinki.]




The scene is a familiar one.  We're on a plane, getting ready to land. 
Tray table up.  Seat back upright.  The entire cabin is silent.  Live
images of moving clouds fill the video monitors (thanks to a camera
mounted on the nose-cone), affording us the spectacle of the very sky
through which we speed.  We are inside the plane's own movie.  Spellbound.

The passenger across the aisle, however, has diverged from this subtle
synchronization.  He has become increasingly agitated.  Nervous energy
surges through his body.  He jostles in his seat, rustling with anxiety,
his gaze darting back and forth across the cabin.  He has become a
disconnected bundle of rapid, uncoordinated movements, as if suddenly
plunged into a free fall.  Waves of tension ripple outward from him,
electrifying the space around him like a brewing storm.

A tiny red call-light flickers above the man's head.  His body stiffens
and his face swells as if he were a volcano about to erupt.  As the
landing gear begins to rumble into place, he begins to emit a low,
guttural roar, which seems to rise up from the very depths of his being. 
The roar vibrates in unison with the mechanical rumble of the landing
gear.  It resounds throughout the cabin, a strange hybrid of human and
machinic discharge.  One ascending from the belly, the other descending
from the hull.  As the wheels lock securely into place, the man unhinges. 
His guttural emission, having rapidly increased in volume and pitch,
phase-shifts into a wild screech that cuts through the cabin like a knife.

In such situations -- when a fellow traveler becomes drastically unmoored,
his only recourse a primal screech -- one cannot be "caught" looking. 
Decorum requires a furtive, sidelong glance.  Stealing a quick succession
of such looks, I notice that the man's hands are clenching the armrest
with an iron grip.  His head is thrown back; his eyes are closed; and his
mouth is opened in a wild grimace.  Is it fear or delicious exhilaration? 
A roller coaster ride or a dance with death?

The atmosphere of the cabin has now radically changed.  Passengers shift
nervously in their seats.  Yet, strapped into our seats, subject to the
regulatory agency of air travel and of the social contract, there are only
three acceptable positions.  Our heads turned sideways, we look out the
window.  Our heads aimed straight ahead, we look at the monitors.  Our
heads lowered, we avert our eyes -- unsure of how to deal politely with
the outburst.  We are caught in some kind of elaborate choreography that
traverses body, machine, and social environment, shaped by a regulatory
domain whose materialization is the plane.

In one sense, it's a choreography of power.  There is a machinery and an
institution that makes us adequate to see; that shapes the legitimacy of
our perspective; and that positions us as subjects.  And yet there are the
ways in which we SQUIRM within these machineries, maneuvering in their
substrata.  Thousands of stimuli impinge upon us, embroiling us in a
larger sensory network that spans the entire room.  Our bodies negotiate
this, but we're not aware of it.  We might sense it as "mood."  Potential
actions brew inside us, to be expressed outwardly or infolded inwardly. 
Our interior states push at the boundaries of visibility. They may erupt
at any moment.  Someone could sigh.  Someone could shout in frustration. 
Someone could gesture abruptly.  Someone could leave the room.  Like the
volcanic, erupting man, someone could "blow their top."

The technology and the rules of air travel do not simply enclose, contain,
and determine.  Rather, they network particular objects and machines with
the sensorial and physical capacities of the passengers.[1]  They set
forth a particular compositional dynamic, interweaving programs, people,
and tendencies.  Objects tend to do things; people do too.  Objects tend
to afford certain behaviors; people tend to gather in clusters and,
through their behaviors, transform the vibe of rooms.  Unpack the
abbreviative term "airplane" and you have things-in-arrangement,
programmatic impulses, and tendencies to action.  You have the play of
language, gesture, and sensation.  Resonances are transmitted across
bodies and environments.  One becomes disposed for action in particular
ways.  The body wiggles within the ordering forces that maintain its
coherency.  At any moment, there is the potential of the eruption.

If power is the site of the REPRESSIVE, then this is the site of the
EXCESSIVE.

SPEECH, and the SCREECH.

---

Let us now probe more deeply into the phenomenon of the screeching man,
who, having blown his top, transforms the vibe of rooms.  And we must
admit that we can identify with him, having become momentarily unhinged
ourselves, or at the very least, having once surrendered to an intensity
that left us speechless.  A roller coaster ride; a sudden wave of erotic
desire; a cheap thrill; a giddy romp.  As critics, we are not likely to
incorporate such moments -- trafficking, as we tend to do, on streets
marked with signs.  But for the purposes of this travelogue, let us now
consider that by privileging the semiotic we have omitted a vital mode of
apprehension.  Rather than reductive form, or signification, this mode is
about excessive transmission.  Containers and categories are deprivileged,
revealed as shorthand.  Transmutations reign.

The Brazilian theorist Suely Rolnik situates the distinction as follows. 
We have two different ways of apprehending the material world:  either as
PATTERN OF FORM or FIELD OF FORCE.  The first involves PERCEPTION.  It is
the world of FORMAL presence -- the world that we negotiate through
REPRESENTATION.  The second involves SENSATION.  It is the world of LIVING
presence -- the world that we negotiate through TRANSMISSION.[2]

The PERCEIVING BODY, and the RESONATING BODY.

Identifiable speech:  sounds forming patterns, distinct ideas and forms --
as they are relayed through voice and a shared matrix of language. 
Vibratory screech: resonating transmission -- modulation, rhythm,
expression, attitude, and disposition.  What is equally (if not more)
important to my MESSAGE is your unconscious RESONANCE with the experience
of its delivery.  Just as meanings are communicated between people,
sensations are transmitted among them too -- as well as between people and
their environments. Every social environment has its vibe.  This vibe is
composed of the affective resonances of everyone present, yet it spills
over to include the space itself.  The eruptive, screeching person exceeds
his own bounds and transforms the vibe of rooms.  The affective resonance
is transmitted to others, moving across and between bodies, generating a
sense of coincidence between subjects and objects.  As when, captivated by
a familiar mix, we have to move to the beat.  If the energy is right, one
might burst into a full-on dance move:  arms aflail, hips abounce.

To feel the beat is to infuse the atmosphere with cadence; to emit and
inhabit rhythmic codes with the entire body sensorium.  As Jeremy Gilbert
points out, music has physical effects that can be identified, described
and discussed -- but this not necessarily the same thing as it having
"meanings."  What we derive from music has less to do with the
communication of meaning, and more to do with how music MOVES us.[3]

Constantly transmitted to others, these affective resonances can
accumulate into something like a collective good will (hot dance floor
scene) or an excruciating anxiousness (volcanic man-out-of-bounds on
airplane).  Since they can be transmitted, they are a powerful social
force.  They can transform, traverse form, and overcome thought in a sweep
of delicious delirium.  They can be more forceful than ideas.  They can be
replicated to a certain extent, applied as a FORMULA.  This is what
advertising does.  The tried-and-true mechanisms of "rallying the crowd"
in political speech.  Dale Carnegie's enduring rules of effective
salesmanship.  DJ-ing.  Religious ritual.  Drill.

A formula is a set of forces and delineations that has crossed a certain
threshold of organization such that it can now program and produce form. 
It is capacity-to-structure, understood through its enactions.  It is not
necessarily imposed but can be generated collectively and
polyrhythmically, emerging from the interactions of various forces and
practices.  It is an organized state that is stable enough to be
replicated (a certain dance move that propagates across a dance community)
or applied as a template (a marketing strategy).  Its source can simply be
a critical mass of affective transmissions that begin, over time, to bond
a community and set the stage for a shared practice, intensifying the
accumulation of knowledge, technology, and materials.

The formula exists in time:  it provides an infrastructure through which
things move, through which things beat rhythmically.  It is not a
mechanism of control since it can always be disrupted and transformed. 
Yet it has effects:  it shapes action-tendencies.  It carries with it
compositional imperatives both material and rhythmic.  It sets forth
formal dynamics, interweaving programs, actors, parts, and tendencies.  It
is a formalizing machine that works through the shaping of potential.

The affective FORMULA that traverses form, transforms:  should this not be
the OBJECT of cultural analysis?

---

The resonating body + formula = the readying body.

There is a political dimension to be explored.  Let us now look
specifically at this readied body -- the body primed for action.  The
concept of READINESS builds on those concepts that have circulated in this
essay -- field of force; sensation; affective transmission; resonance --
while differing from them in its emphasis on formula and therefore
politics.

---

"Readiness" fits within much of the recent discourses around the
phenomenon of affect.  Studies of affect have provided a rich realm of
exchange between cultural studies, philosophy, and science studies (for
example in the work of Brian Massumi); reinvigorated phenomenological
approaches to new media (Mark B. N. Hansen); and offered long-neglected
ways of theorizing the dynamics of cities (Nigel Thrift). In many ways,
when we speak of readiness we are already talking about affect.  However
affect is an ambiguous term that has multiple meanings.  For some, it
veers close to emotions and feelings.  Yet affect -- at least in the way
that I want to understand it here -- is not so easily positioned as such. 
Far from an identifiable emotion, it is rather a pure potentiality:  an
undifferentiated, moving kaleidoscope of sensations and states.  It is a
contradictory dimension in which anxieties and pleasures cohabit, before
they can be categorized as such.

Readiness is simply a particular contextualization of affect:  a way to
cut through the ambiguity of the term's meaning and situate it squarely
within a political landscape.  The political arena I want to emphasize is
the escalating, increasingly competitive world of consumer-security
culture -- a world of shrinking time and space intervals, where there is
seemingly less and less time to act.  A world of multiple, perpetual
crises served up as dizzying arrays of product choices, across which the
desiring and protective eye grazes, no longer able to act in any one arena
since it is already "too late":  the next crisis, always imminent, demands
full vigilance.  A world in which genuine action becomes "unproductive"
and a form of perpetual proto-action takes its place.  I am interested in
the ways that, within this landscape, a "state of readiness" has become an
economic, political, and military ideal.

It has been said that today, in a multitasking world, attention has become
promiscuous:  we do not focus our awareness so much as engage in
"continuous partial attention."  Readiness might be understood as the
embodied analogue to this:  continuous-partial-action.  Yet readiness
never results in an identifiable act.  It exists somewhere between an
internal bodily state and a conscious opening out onto the world.  That
is, it is located somewhere between affect and attention:  between
ambiguous bodily stimulation and focused alertness.  It is a form of
attention that is not available to the conscious mind, but is shared
nonetheless by the synesthetic perceptual faculties of the body substrate,
such as what we might understand as the register of the proprioceptive or
the visceral.  In other words it is something that wells up inside you and
is somehow "known" by your body, but which is not yet is unavailable to
your conscious thought.

In this sense readiness has no stable object.  It is a continual state of
heightened alertness at the level of resonation, not form.  It is field of
force, not formal pattern.  ANY NUMBER OF FORMS WILL DO, AS LONG AS THE
FORMULA IS IN PLACE.  Think of how it is in cinema:  in the melodrama or
the Hollywood action-adventure movie, it doesn't really matter who the
characters are, or where it takes place, as long as the formula holds. 
Even tragedy itself could be understood as a formula.  Likewise warfare: 
today's enemy is tomorrow's friend.  The objects are interchangeable.

Readiness, then, is a continuous, heightened state of alertness and
preparedness that has no stable object or output.  For, again, it never
results in identifiable acts.  It is incipient action, extinguished as
soon as it is expressed.  It is the body's way of preparing itself for
expression, a lived interior state that pushes at the boundaries of
activity.  In the state of readiness, one is truly ready for anything --
be it danger or desire.  For at the affective level of readiness, pleasure
and fear work in conjunction (as they do in the genre of tragedy), an
interlocking mechanism of stimulation that is contradictory only at the
level of language.  In this sense readiness is the arena where combat and
shopping can work in tandem:  they both arouse the body, an arousal whose
source or content is indistinguishable at this level.  The body is
rendered susceptible to formula, disposed to think and act in certain
ways.

Readiness shapes tendency, structures disposition.  Again, it is always en
route, always emerging.  Yet it is not only internal:  it works laterally
across bodies and environments.  As provisional as they might be, its
objects are group constructions, hybrid compositions: identifiable within
the formula, yet interchangeable.

We might say that readiness is the lived, embodied dimension of vigilance.
 In his study of modern psychology L. S. Hearnshaw suggests that the term
vigilance was adopted by the Cambridge psychologist Mackworth in his
wartime studies of visual and auditory monitoring, and defined by him as
"a state of readiness to detect and respond to certain specified small
changes occurring at random time intervals in the environment."[4] 
Following Friedrich Kittler, we could situate a term like vigilance firmly
on its media-technological base:  perhaps at the advent of real-time
tracking (specifically, radar), which could only be as good as the
operators who were primed to detect deviation in its patterns. Jonathan
Crary would likewise originate issues of vigilance in the continuous
scanning of radar screens by human operators during World War II, and thus
to the efficient use of new real-time technology.[5]  Vigilance, for our
purposes here, is real-time attentivity:  attention on a heightened state
of alert in response to the demands of instantaneous detection technology.
 Its civilian analogue is the just-in-time consumer-trader, ever-alert at
the computer monitor, finger poised to click.  The consumer-trader that no
longer "sees" in the traditional sense so much as calculates potentials. 
The trader-gamer armed with a joystick, one foot in the future.

Pattern of form and Field of force.  Language and Readiness.  Both are
always in play.  While the perceiving body READS, the resonating body
READIES.

---

We have a critical vocabulary to understand the power of media in terms of
its ideological effects.  Yet we lack a vocabulary to understand the power
of media otherwise:  that is, in terms of its ability to transmit affects.
 During at least the last forty years, criticism has focused on the social
and cultural construction of knowledge.  It has directed attention toward
the conditions that make meaning possible.  It has been useful for
debunking beliefs, powers, illusions, essentialist truths.  But for the
reasons pointed out here, it only gives us half the picture:  the world of
form, rather than that of force.  Language, rather than readiness. 
Speech, but not the screech.

How, then, can we expand the language of cultural analysis in order to
account for this affective dimension of readiness?  And, further, how can
we use this orientation to generate a reinvigorated, performative
politics?  Might we speak of an "affective critique"?  Or is the term
"critique" no longer useful at all?

Walter Benjamin made a call, many years ago, that criticism, like
advertising, should affect the reader with intensive, visceral projections
that circumvent any form of contemplation.  An intensity that, something
like a "burst of energy," affects the very life of the subject.

Has this not become precisely the aim of contemporary power?

(Are we then to play the same game?)

---

Technologies of bioanalysis are probing deeply into this intimate,
affective space of readiness.  Here is one thing that they have revealed: 
a particular action is already set in motion by the body about 0.8 seconds
before we consciously experience performing it.  The body readies itself
for action BEFORE it has a conscious experience of the action.  According
to Nigel Thrift, we can expand the timespace of embodiment accordingly,
then, such that it incorporates a "constantly moving preconscious
frontier."[6]  In other words, what we experience as the immediate
presentness of the body is, in a sense, already past.  To incorporate the
preconscious frontier in our understanding of embodiment is to widen the
durational expanse of the present moment, revealing the ways that the body
inhabits this space, now understood in political terms.  It is to open up
a political space between action and thought.  An operational gap between
affect and contemplation.

Francisco Varela suggests that what we understand as the "now" of the
present is a duration lasting 0.3 seconds.  Contrary to the informational
computational model of the brain -- this "now" is not a steady string of
temporal quanta, like a ticking clock.  Rather, it is a "HORIZON OF
INTEGRATION."   It is an internally-generated flow based on layers of
dynamical self-organizing neuronal assemblies. In other words the "now" is
dynamically dependent on a number of dispersed internal assemblies and not
on a fixed integration period.[7]  For Varela, affect PRECEDES temporality
and "sculpts" the dynamics of time flow.  For Mark Hansen, affect provides
the bond between temporal flow and perceptual event.[8]

We are speaking, then, less about the structuring of action than about the
shaping of tendencies.  A field of resonation shaped by formula.  Perhaps
this suggests that technologies of control are not really about acts but
about potentials:  an implosion of real-time such that all that remains is
an anticipatory orientation.  Statistical inclinations.  Pre-emption.

In a competitive world where there is less and less time to act, or where
action plays out in fractions of seconds, the focus moves away from
exterior movements and instead toward DISPOSITIONS TO ACT that accumulate
just at the horizon of the visible.  A technological expansion of the now
in order to generate a "pre-objective present."  A pre-objective present
that comprises the very ground for experience as such.[9]

Affect is bound up with the formation of subjectivity.  What we might call
self-affection -- the affective experience of one's self, one's vitality
-- is part of a process of subjectivization.  So we are talking,
fundamentally, of SELF-READINESS as a SUBJECT-CONSTITUTING EXPERIENCE.

---

In such a landscape, we can certainly say that power has become affective.
 (Has it not always been so?)

What possibilities exist, then, for political action?  For Brian Massumi,
political action has to learn to function itself on the same level as
affective power:  it has to meet affective modulation with affective
modulation.[10] Yet does it not also need to reveal the terms of this
modulation -- in other words, the structuring of the affective formula?

An affective, performative politics is certainly of the order, yet is this
not the aim of political violence?  For Massumi, the crucial question is
whether there are ways of practicing an affective politics that doesn?t
rely on violence and the hardening of divisions along identity lines that
it usually brings.  Such an expressive or performative politics would
require, following Brian Holmes' reading of Suely Rolnik, an understanding
of political resistance not only in terms of sterile confrontation with an
objectified other, but in terms of a transformational dynamic of
reknitting and even REINVENTING the relation with the other.[11]

Perhaps, too, the affective FORMULA that traverses form, transforms,
should not only become the object of cultural analysis, but also that of
performative and aesthetic practice?  The affective formula that carries
with it formal imperatives both material and rhythmic, interweaving
programs, actors, parts, and tendencies.  The affective formula that is
geared to encounter other formulas and transform them from within.

In any case, we are talking about a political practice that is not
"oppositional" but compositional.


--

NOTES

1.  This statement borrows from Matthew Fuller in his important book Media
Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (The MIT Press,
2005), p. 71.  I am indebted to Fuller for many of the insights in this
paragraph as well as elsewhere in this essay.

2.  See Brian Holmes, "Emancipation," nettime mailing list, 5 July 2004. 
http://www.nettime.org, and Suely Rolnik, "The Twilight of the Victim:
Creation Quits Its Pimp, To Rejoin Resistance," available at
http://ut.yt.t0.or.at/site/index.html.  A collection of Holmes's and
Rolnik's writings are available on this site.

3.  Jeremy Gilbert, "Signifying Nothing: 'Culture', 'Discourse', and the
Sociality of Affect," Culture Machine 6 (2004),  
http://culturemachine.tees.ac.uk/Cmach/Backissues/j006/articles/gilbert.htm.

4.  L. S. Hearnshaw, The Shaping of Modern Psychology (Routledge, 1987),
pp. 206-209, as cited in Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception:
Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (The MIT Press, 1999), p. 34.

5. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and
Modern Culture (The MIT Press, 1999), p. 34.

6. 30. Nigel Thrift, "Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics
of Affect," Geografiska Annaler 86 B (2004), available at
http://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/~kstraus/thrift/downloads/Thrift.pdf.  I am
indebted to Thrift for many insights around affect and affective politics.

7.  Francisco Varela, "The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time
Consciousness," in J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy,
eds., Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and
Cognitive Science (Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 276-277; 301.  As
cited in Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (The MIT Press,
2004), p. xxv.  I am borrowing from Hansen's phrasing of Varela's
insights.

8. Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (The MIT Press, 2004),
p. xxv.

9.  Mark B. N. Hansen, "The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life,"
Critical Inquiry 30 (Spring 2004), pp. 589.

10.  See Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual (Duke University Press,
2002).

11.  See Brian Holmes, "Emancipation," nettime mailing list, 5 July 2004. 
http://www.nettime.org, and Suely Rolnik, "The Twilight of the Victim:
Creation Quits Its Pimp, To Rejoin Resistance," available at
http://ut.yt.t0.or.at/site/index.html.




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