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"Readiness" and its formulas
Jordan Crandall, 2007
Conference lectured at the Symposium "Architectures of fear. Terrorism and the Future of Urbanism in the West" CCCB 17-18 May 2007

In the midst of ambulances, police cars and emergency personnel, one man lays motionless upon the hot pavement. His head is swathed in bloody bandages, as if it were mummified, completely abstracting his features, save for his mouth. His body, remarkably at ease, is placed atop a stretcher. No one attends to him; he appears to have been carried upon the stretcher for some time and then abruptly dropped upon the asphalt. His arms are outstretched, perpendicular to this body, in a gesture of surrender or sacrifice. Police, firemen, and emergency workers circulate around him, but they seem to pay him no attention. Nearby, a tall woman with a bloody arm drifts about aimlessly, as if she were between takes in a horror film. A helicopter hovers overhead, a rescue person dangling from it. From behind the barricades, a crowd of onlookers gawks. The scene has the quality of a Hollywood stage-set. Everyone moves in slow motion, as if in the midst of rehearsing for a role.
As it turns out, this is indeed somewhat of a rehearsal. It is an exercise – designed to simulate, in real time, an actual terrorist attack. The event was produced jointly by San Diego’s Metropolitan Medical Strike Team, the University of California at San Diego, and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (CAL-IT2). It involved public safety personnel from the police and fire departments, SWAT, HAZMAT, the Medical Response System, and UCSD – about 200 city and county officials and first responders, along with emergency room physicians, nurses, and technicians from the UCSD Medical Center. According to the press release, the UCSD campus building around which this attack occurred – Atkinson Hall – was, at least for this day, to “simulate the frontline in the war on terrorism”.
When it comes down to it, such exercises shouldn’t seem so unusual in San Diego, a city that has long been one of the country’s most important military centers. The university campus itself was once an army base, and military facilities abound in the region. Today San Diego has the largest concentration of naval facilities in the world. It is a major center for defense-related manufacturing, home to businesses that contract to the military for security applications, logistical services, unmanned aerial systems, and personnel. It is also one of the global centers for biotechnology research. Bounded by the increasingly militarized border with Mexico to the south and Hollywood to the north, the campus is uniquely situated in a region that is a primary node of the global security-entertainment complex. With all this in mind, one shouldn’t be surprised to happen upon such a terror simulation. In fact, it is surprising that such simulations don’t happen more often, as part of the university curriculum.

CAL-IT2 at UCSD is looking for a few good men – and women – to volunteer to play the role of victims. Want to become a “volunteer victim”? You will need to be at Atkinson Hall from 7am to 3pm, and you’ll be given a free t-shirt and lunch. All volunteer victims will be given an injury script and instructions on how to act disoriented and panicked. Some victims may be transferred to area hospitals via ambulance or helicopter. Most victims will wear faux injury make-up (moulage) to add realism to the day’s event. Some victims will be “decontaminated” by the first responders in tents and with fire engines. This is a great opportunity to see your first responders in action in the midst of all the excitement!1

Perhaps this is what the educational experience will soon become as university campuses become even further absorbed, structurally, into the military-industrial complex. It was certainly attractive to students: about 100 of them signed up to participate. Such interactive simulations could well provide a solution for classroom overcrowding, as well as providing an outlet for aggressive impulses that could otherwise burst forth in the occasional rampage. They could provide an attractive study-mode for students who are more used to gaming than reading. Perhaps these students, well-versed in simulations, reality media, and the development of user-generated web content, were drawn to this particular exercise as a way to somehow “inhabit” the war – to inhabit the war on terror as if playing a videogame or going on a theme park ride.
How to account for this “thrill of inhabitation”? For the most part, we – as critics – usually dismiss it. We can easily fold it into a general critique of the apparatuses of the war machine – its mystifications, its false enticements, its disciplinary functions. Our line of reasoning might go like this. Within the military and corporate-fueled regimes of spectacle, subjects are produced as docile soldier-consumers, surfaces for the production of a range of enticements and effects. We are made adequate to the demands of state and corporate power, seamlessly integrated into the machine, our perceptual and sensorial faculties adjusted accordingly. We are victim, like the bound and bandaged man laying before me on the stretcher, a sad pawn in a larger game for which we do not set the rules. No sites of invention and performative agency are possible: if they seem to be, they are illusory, already structurally provided for by the system. A faux-victim like the one in the terror exercise is not only the “victim” of a (simulated) attack, but of the discursive institution of terror itself.
Standing there in the midst of the simulation, however, this script suddenly changed. Or rather, my role in it did. Perhaps, like the student on the stretcher, I too wanted a new study-mode. I wanted to play a different part. A part through which I could discover my own victimness – not through analysis but through immersion. Certainly, we are driven to inhabit the war, play the roles demanded of us, through technological, discursive, and psychic apparatuses. Yet these apparatuses are all shot through with desire. There are pleasures to be recognized, pleasures in which we are implicated. I want to account for these pleasures, and in so doing, discover the transformative agency that lurks there.
And so I, too, was hailed by some casting agency – some amorphous institutional agency that likewise sought me as “volunteer victim”. If this were a Hollywood film, my role-switch might have been occasioned by a strike to the head, a grand catastrophe, or an “act of God”. As it was, the only heralding soundtrack was the shriek of a police siren – a fake one. No matter: in the next instant, I realize that I have heeded the casting call. I am not sure how to name the role that I was compelled to play, since we do not have a (critical) vocabulary for it. However I do know this: the role required me to move from a distanced (critical) perspective to a more implicated one. No more critiques of the war machine from afar: I am now compelled to account for the thrill of inhabiting it, ajar.
It was then, in the very moment of my transition, that something very curious began to happen. As I shifted out of my old role, the man on the stretcher began to move more deeply into his new one. While I would like to think that I have approached my new role with some reserve (we shall see), the man, swept up in the momentum of the event, had clearly begun to inhabit his part all too well. I’m not sure to what extent he had been coached (all volunteer victims were given an “injury script”), but I’m sure that he well exceeded what was expected of him.
Here is what happened. The man’s bandaged face became red and swollen like a match- head. He became increasingly agitated, jostling in his stretcher. His gaze – barely visible through the slits of his bandages – darted back and forth across the commons. As the fake siren began to die out, he began to emit a low, guttural roar, which vibrated in unison with the mechanical rumble of the generators and emergency machines. It resounded across the commons, a strange hybrid of human and machinic discharge. As a “decontamination engine” fired up nearby, the man unhinged. His guttural emission, having rapidly increased in volume and pitch, phase-shifted into a wild screech that cut through the commons like a knife.
In such situations – when someone becomes drastically unmoored, making recourse only to a kind of 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 stretcher; his bandaged head is vibrating like a power tool; and his mouth is opened in a wild grimace. Is he experiencing fear or exhilaration? A pleasurable ride or a dance with death? Or the jouissance of risk itself: the pleasure of the gamble and its contradictory excitations?
A moment of calmness. Perhaps he is gathering his wits? Not so: As he lay there, periodic shrieks begin to erupt out of him, much to the dismay of everyone assembled in the vicinity, who could, after all, do nothing to silence him without “breaking character”.
The shrieking man, convulsing on the pavement, seemed to be engaged in a process of literally becoming a victim, not just playing the role of one. One immediately thinks of the Rossellini film General dela Rovere, or even the Hirschbiegel film Das Experiment, where the lead characters, swept up in the roles that they are compelled to play, begin to see these roles as some sort of symbolic mandate, to the extent that they literally become what they had (formerly) impersonated. As Slavoj Zzizzek would say, insisting the false mask can bring us nearer to a true, authentic subjective position than throwing off the mask and displaying our “true face”. A mask, then, is not a false disguise but an agent of realization, which determines the actual place we occupy in the intersubjective symbolic network, and thus our social role. In other words what is effectively “false” is not the mask itself, but the inner distance we take from it – the illusion that our “true self” is hidden behind it. Perhaps, as Zzizzek suggests, the path to an authentic subjective position runs from the outside inward: first, we pretend to be someone, and then gradually, step by step, we actually become that person.2

Needless to say, the atmosphere of the terror drill has now radically changed. Workers and spectators shift nervously in their positions. Yet, subject to the regulatory agency of the institution – emergency, policing, and educational – and at the same time beholden to a wider social contract, there are only a few acceptable modes of engagement. Mostly we look away, our heads scanning across the commons, as if nothing were amiss. Or, our heads lowered, we avert our eyes – unsure of how to deal politely with the outburst. (It’s not polite to stare, our parents always told us.) Our movements are constrained, the area around the man cordoned off. We are caught in some kind of elaborate choreography. This choreography traverses bodies, technologies, and the social environment. Shaped by a regulatory domain, it generates the sensorial and somatic adjustments that are appropriate to it.
In one sense, it’s a self-monitoring choreography of power, bound up in a social and technical machinery that makes us adequate to see, shapes the legitimacy of our perspective, and positions us as subjects. This machinery – this apparatus – is of course instituted and stabilized by various regulatory domains, which include the institution of policing and emergency response, but it also embraces wider discursive contracts through which social and operative protocols are maintained. The apparatus runs the programs of its regulatory institutions, yet, since these are, in part, social phenomena, these programs will change as they are instantiated in practice.
Change can happen at any point in the practice or performance of the system: like the agitated actor on the pavement, we sometimes squirm as we move and are maneuvered within the substrates of the machineries. Thousands of stimuli constantly impinge upon us, embroiling us in a larger sensory network that overcomes all regulations. 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 with the potential to 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 his top”.
If power is the site of the repressive, then these considerations are a site for the excessive. Disciplinary power is generally understood to operate through containment and regulatory force, yet these sensory networks and their eruptive potentials overcome all regulations, putting the “contained” body at risk. If the former operates through signification, the latter transgresses it. Each, then, requires a different mode of apprehension. Following the Brazilian theorist Suely Rolnik we might articulate the distinction as follows. We have two different ways of apprehending the material world – either as “pattern of form” or as “field of force”. The first involves perception as it confronts the world of formal presence – the world that we negotiate through representation. The second involves sensation – the world of living presence that we negotiate through transmission.3 Obviously, these modes of apprehension work in conjunction with one another. Yet to acknowledge both is to reach the limits of discourse. Rather than relying solely upon reductive form, or signification, we are challenged to incorporate resonation and excess. Not speech alone, but also screech.

The apparatus, as shaped by its regulatory domains, is that which runs programs and choreographs movements. At all points, its activities are threatened by excess, as with the squirming actor whose interior states push at the boundaries of visibility, thereby risking the stability of the body’s confines. Bodies and environments are enclosed and regulated, certainly. Yet resonances are transmitted across these bodies that carry the potential to transgress or destabilize them. One could say that the body is not only enclosed but disposed. It is disposed for action – readied. It wiggles within the ordering forces that maintain its coherence. By virtue of its resonances and transmissions it is already outside itself. It is fixed yet moving, material yet incorporeal. It manifests what Brian Massumi has described as a “self-disjunctive coinciding” – a conversion or unfolding of the body that is contemporary with its every move, which sinks an ontological difference into the core of the body.4 This turns on something like the distinction between position and disposition.
Building on Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between disciplinary and control societies, we might say that the apparatus no longer seeks to mold so much as it does to modulate.5 For it does not aim simply to enclose and determine, but rather to maintain and manage that which could exceed its determinations. Giorgio Agamben would likewise make this distinction, while naming the modulating function more precisely as that of security. While discipline isolates and closes off territories, he writes, security leads to an opening and to globalization. While the former wants to prevent and prescribe, the latter wants to intervene in ongoing processes and direct these processes. While the former wants to produce order, the latter wants to guide disorder.6 Following from this line of reasoning, this new apparatus of security is not, as it is sometimes regarded in the media and in many critical circles, “preventive”.7 It is not preventive since it “can only function within a context of freedom of traffic, trade, and individual initiative”. It is in this way Agamben suggests, following Foucault, that the development of security coincides with the development of liberal ideology.8
Unlike disciplinary control, this security-modulation does not seek to eliminate the “dangerous” excess that threatens the coherency of a body. Rather, it seeks to manage this excess, or to produce it as manageable. It sets forth dispositions as much as positions, works through readiness as much as regulation. Such a stance involves the incorporation of uncertainty; if it is a form of control, it is one in which outcomes cannot be determined. Note the paradigmatic changes manifested in the U.S.
Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, released as a government document in December 2006 and now published by the University of Chicago Press. In the 1990s, military strategy emphasized force protection; now, in 2006, this emphasis has been overturned by several paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” 9
As Vilém Flusser points out, the Latin word apparatus is derived from the verb apparare, which means “to prepare”. For Flusser, the apparatus is a thing that lies in wait for something: a thing that exhibits a “readiness to spring into action”. The photographic apparatus, for example, lies in wait for photography; “it sharpens its teeth in readiness”.10 The apparatus readies itself for action like a hunter preparing a foray.
If we develop this etymology to produce a more active (rather than passive) concept of apparatus instead, then the apparatus would not necessarily be a machinery that lies in wait for something, but rather a machinery that arranges, or choreographs, acts of preparedness. A machinery that modulates readiness. One could certainly see the apparatus of security as that which lies in wait for threat. But one could also conceive of this apparatus as a milieu that prepares its subjects, or calibrates their tendencies to act. What does it ready them for? It prepares them for safe and productive movement against a landscape of threat; it prepares them to ward off danger and inefficiency. Yet it not only traffics in fear but in pleasure. For as we shall see, readiness does not simply coalesce as a state of alarm. It is a state of ambiguous arousal.
In the state of readiness, one is truly ready for anything, be it danger or desire.

What role am I casting for “readiness”? I want to understand readiness following certain lines thinking about the concept of affect – notably the analysis opened up by Brian Massumi’s readings of Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, in which affect is sharply distinguished from emotions and feelings.11 Far from an identifiable emotion, affect is vitality, 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. As Philip Turetzky suggests, affects are becomings (in Deleuze’s sense) rather than structures; they distribute intensities and produce open and attractive possibilities (in Husserl’s sense).12
Readiness, like affect, is a form of activation that is not necessarily available to the conscious mind, but is shared nonetheless by the synaesthetic perceptual faculties of the body substrate. It operates through both proprioceptive (the unconscious sensory flow from the movable parts of the body, through which position and tone of motion are continually adjusted) and visceral functions (the deeper excitations registered by the organs and systems of the body before they can be processed by the brain). In other words, it is something that wells up inside the self and is somehow “known” by the body, but which is not yet necessarily available to conscious thought.
It has been said that today, in a multitasking world, our attention has become promiscuous: we do not focus our awareness on one thing for long so much as engage in “continuous partial attention”. Motivated by the desire not to miss opportunities, we juggle objects of interest, prioritizing one item at a time but continually monitoring several background tasks just in case something more important or interesting comes up. Readiness might be understood as the embodied dimension of this: “continuous partial action”. It exists somewhere between an internal bodily state and a conscious opening out onto the world, between ambiguous bodily arousal and focused alertness. It is the body’s way of preparing itself for expression, a lived interior state that pushes at the boundaries of activity.
Since external stimuli are filtered and the field of attention reorganized through the body’s affectual capacities, they provide a port of entry into the body. Readiness could be understood as a site where affects can be operated upon, produced, or otherwise stimulated through response techniques and technologies. It could be regarded as the lived, embodied dimension of vigilance.
In his study of modern psychology, L. S. Hearnshaw claims that the term vigilance (defined as “a state of readiness to detect and respond to certain specified small changes occurring at random time intervals in the environment”) was first adopted by Cambridge psychologist Norman Mackworth in his wartime studies of visual and auditory monitoring.13 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 was only as good as the operators who were primed to detect deviation in its patterns.14 Jonathan Crary also situates a new formulation 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.15 For our purposes, vigilance is real-time attentiveness: attention on a heightened state of alert in response to potential threat, propelled by the demands of instantaneous detection technologies. Its civilian analogue is the just-in-time consumer-trader, ever-alert at the computer monitor, finger poised to click. The consumer-trader who no longer “sees” in the traditional sense, so much as calculates potentials: the trader-gamer armed with a joystick, one foot in the future.

Technologies of bioanalysis are probing more deeply into these intimate, microstates of bodily movement and affective disposition, arraying these states as calculations, statistics, and simulations. Here is one thing that these technologies have revealed: a particular action is already set in motion by the body about 0.8 seconds before we consciously experience the performance of it. The body readies itself for action before it has a conscious experience of the action. According to Nigel Thrift, we can expand the time-space of embodiment accordingly, such that it incorporates a “constantly moving preconscious frontier”. 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, opening up a space between affect and contemplation.16
In many ways this space has already become a site of operations. In an escalating, increasingly competitive consumer-security culture, everything happens in this gap between action and thought, detection and engagement. Predicated on shrinking intervals in time and space, within which there is seemingly less and less time to act, a new world has emerged founded on multiple, perpetual crises served up as dizzying arrays of product choice, across which the desiring and fearing self scans, no longer able to act in any one arena since it is already “too late”. The next crisis, always imminent, demands full vigilance. This is a world in which genuine action becomes “unproductive” and a form of perpetual proto-action takes its place. One experiences the jouissance of action, yet one does not act. It is something like action without the action: transgression without consequence.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded Threat Level System solicits just this type of proto-action. As of this writing, the current national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow – a stage at which Americans are advised to “continue to be vigilant, take notice of their surroundings”. The focus moves away from genuine action toward dispositions to act that accumulate just at the horizon of movement. The apparatus of security prepares its subjects, calibrating their tendencies to act through a system of coded alerts, readying them against danger. “Actionability” takes precedence over action, statistical inclination over language, calibration over containment. In such a landscape, Paul Virilio has remarked, the emphasis shifts from the “standardization of public opinion” to the “synchronization of public emotion”.17
According to John Armitage, the “Be Ready” campaign, also put out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, operates in this space of imminent mobility too. The readiness it promotes has no real object, but is simply perpetuated in an endless cycle. The individualized “desire for mobility” – the consumerist impulse – is recoded and displaced onto the theaters of threat.18 Desire and fear cohabit here, at the threshold of action. Shopping functions as both pleasure and defense. At the affective level of readiness, combat and shopping, or fear and pleasure, work in conjunction. They constitute an interlocking mechanism of stimulation that is contradictory only at the level of language.
Since readiness can be transmitted, it is a powerful social force. It can transform, traverse form, and overcome thought in a sweep of delicious delirium. Like the screeching actor on the stretcher, people transmit affective resonances to each other and transform the vibe of rooms and situations. Through these transmissions, actors – people, things, spaces – become mutually attuned; sync with each other; or variously coincide. Or not. (I use “attunement” here rather than “relation”: because it implies synchronization, hookups, coincidings; and unlike relationality, it does not imply distinction and spatial separation. With readiness, we are prompted to speak of attunements as much as we are of relations.)
These transmissions can accumulate into something like a collective good will (as in a rally), or an excruciating anxiousness (as with the volcanic man-out-of-bounds on the pavement). Moving across and between bodies, they generate a sense of coincidence between subjects and objects. Examples abound. In times of trouble, a feeling of solidarity binds groups together and turns them against other aggregates. When we want to complain, we search for allies. Captivated by a familiar mix, we move together to the beat, infusing the atmosphere with cadence, emitting and inhabiting rhythmic codes with the entire body sensorium.

Often more forceful than ideas, readiness can be replicated to a certain degree – as in advertising or the tried-and-true mechanisms of “rallying the crowd” in political speech. So it is with DJ-ing, religious ritual, and drill. In this sense it can be formulized. Yet readiness can also emerge in an unplanned way. It can be generated collectively and polyrhythmically – emerging from the interactions of various forces and practices, and out of individually and collectively acquired patterns of response. In this “emergent” sense, too, it can be replicated – as with a certain move or gesture that propagates across a dance community. 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.
Something is said to be emergent when it exhibits the capacity to demonstrate powers at higher levels of organization that do not exist at other levels. Understood as a system of complex interactions, properties of the combination as a whole are more than the sum of its individual parts. (As such what is emergent can’t only be grasped with a topdown analytical approach – i.e., begin with the whole and dissect it into constituent parts.) Something like this is to be found in Manuel DeLanda’s concept of nonlinear history, where historical transformation is not a linear advance up the ladder of progress but a crossing of nonlinear critical thresholds. As DeLanda explains, “Much as a given compound (water, for example) may exist in several distinct states (solid, liquid, or gas) and may switch from stable state to stable state at critical points in the intensity of temperature (called phase transitions), so a human society may be seen as a ‘material’ capable of undergoing these changes of state as it reaches a critical mass in terms of density of settlement, amount of energy consumed, or even intensity of interaction.”19 One can posit multi-layered, resonating levels of organization, temporarily stabilized in form (or material states). These levels may have very different logics and rhythms. Even though they may be locked in resonation with each other, they always contain the potential for variation or emergence – spontaneous or triggered generation of a new level of reality. Between these regions of potential there are no boundaries, only thresholds.
Yet while readiness is an emergent phenomenon, it is one that can be, at least in part, directed through compositional forces and delineations. These “formulizers” bring in considerations of language. (Even though readiness itself can be understood as pre-symbolic – as a field of force rather than pattern of form – considerations of language must be introduced when considering its structuring dynamics. Readiness, like affect, is not a linguistic phenomenon, however its “formulizers” are, in part.) These compositional forces and delineations are not forms so much as they are form-machines. They are structuring chords that operate at multiple levels of organization and stability. When they cross a certain threshold of organization, and are enacted in practice, they can eventualize forms. In this sense they are not things but enactable capacities – enactable capacities-to-structure. They are activation-shapers, understood through their various instantiations.
Readiness is a state of affective organization that is stable enough to be “formulized”, then, and replicated or applied as a template, regardless of whether this formulization is planned or emergent. Yet readiness is inherently an unstable phenomenon. Its expressions in practice are not predictable. The modulating formula can change at any time by way of its instantiation in practice.

Again, the apparatus, as shaped by its regulatory domains, is that which runs programs and choreographs movements. At all points, its activities are threatened by excess, as with the agitated actor on the pavement whose interior states push at the boundaries of stabilization. Resonances are transmitted across bodies that carry the potential to transgress them. The body is not only enclosed (regulated) but disposed (resonated). The apparatus, then, is that which moves beyond its functions that were formerly understood as disciplinary, toward those of control in Deleuze’s sense or security in Agamben’s sense. It becomes an active machinery that arranges, or choreographs, acts of preparedness. A machinery that modulates readiness. A machinery that does not endeavor to control actions and outcomes so much as to calibrate tendencies to act.
This modulating apparatus does not seek to eliminate the “dangerous” excess that threatens the coherency of a body. Rather, since change can happen at any point in the practice or performance of the system, it seeks to manage this excess, or to produce it as manageable. It sets forth dispositions as much as positions, works through readiness as much as regulation. The modulating apparatus runs the programs of its regulatory institutions, yet, since these are, in part, social phenomena, these programs – or formulae – will change as they are instantiated in practice.
The modulating formula exists in time, providing a calibrating infrastructure through which things move, or beat, rhythmically. It is not a mechanism of control since it can always be disrupted and transformed. Yet it has effects: it shapes actiontendencies. It carries with it compositional imperatives both material and rhythmic. It sets out formal dynamics, interweaving programs, actors, parts, and tendencies. It’s a formalizing machine that works through the shaping of potential.
In a sense, any number of forms will do, as long as the formula is in place. Think of how it is in popular entertainment: in the soap melodrama or the Hollywood actionadventure movie, it doesn’t really matter who the characters are, or where it takes place, so long as the formula holds. A bad movie, predictable and transparent, is referred to as “formulaic”. When someone finds a productive way of doing something, one is said to have found a “formula”. Even tragedy itself could be understood as a formula. The objects are ultimately interchangeable, their status fluid. They can change from hostile to friendly, object of attack to object of acquisition.
To grasp the operation of the modulating formula, we cannot focus on meaning alone. Following Suely Rolnik, once more, we can speak of resonance as much as representation; living presence as much as formal presence. What is central to the operation of the formula is jouissance, the kind of perverse enjoyment that both attracts and repels us – something like a “morbid curiosity” about the direction and objects of our looks, and what we don’t want to see. As we find with images of war or catastrophe. Here scopophilic pleasures and surveillant anxieties cohabit. To acknowledge this domain is to admit danger and conflict as constitutive elements of attraction – manifest in the unpredictable, perilous web of intrigue that pulls us into the narrative world, and which compels us to inhabit the drama (as with the actor in the terror simulation). In the next moment, we could be the victim. We do not know what danger lurks ahead, but we must continue at our peril. At any moment, desire could meet its constitutive other – death. As Bataille would remind us, what compels us is the possibility of union.
The modulating formula can’t be deciphered or interpreted: we miss its resonance if we engage it only within the field of the ideological. Ultimately, no one can control the formula’s manifestations and effects: it seems to take on a life of its own, like the silly pop tune that you can’t get out of your head, propagating across a community and, at least at some level, developing social bonds. A dance move; a repetitive behavior; a conspiracy theory; a religious ritual; a catchy phrase; a celebrity fascination; a gambling addiction; a design preoccupation; an erotic compulsion; a fetish. The modulating formula takes root to the extent that it connects with something “in you” – in Lacanian terms, something that is in you more than yourself. Something like a per-verse motif, a propagating pattern that generates excitations and structures disposition, yet at its core means nothing.20
The modulating formula, then, is an agile, a-formal form that can maneuver between the affective and symbolic registers, or between dispositions and concepts. It traffics between the intensive and extensive registers, acting as a structuring component or activation-shaper. It functions at once as an actor, a conductor, and a surface-effect. It can locate objects and make them potential objectives; yet it manifests a deformational affective potential that upsets the order of the grid and thereby opens up new assemblages of agency.21 Here one does not seek to represent so much as engender and traverse. One must look to relays between the levels, transversal mixings, redistributions of energy and meaning. How modification of potentials (whether intentional or emergent) are conducted; how they globally reconfigure in ways that might result in amplification or dampening. The form/content dualism, and the signifier/signified duality, is avoided. Not to mention the old oppositions – real/artificial, nature/culture, body/other.22 What emerges instead is something like a distinction between form and substance – or matter, content, and expression. What we understand as “content” is formed matter, codification its order.

Cut to the shrieking man on the pavement, who seemed to be engaged in a process of literally becoming a victim, rather than just playing the role of one. Does the “false mask” that he wears bring him nearer to a “true” subject position – determining the place he occupies in the intersubjective symbolic network (his social role)? Or does it somehow emerge from within? Does the path to an authentic subjective position run from the outside inward, or from the inside outward? Is it positional or dispositional?
For this final act, let’s bring in Spinoza. Perhaps he is the rescue person dangling from the helicopter in the terror drill; hovering in the background, he is now to be lowered into the scene. In contrast to Descartes, who believed that the world was composed of two substances (extension and thought), Spinoza believed that the world was all of one substance. As Nigel Thrift writes, “in Spinoza’s world, everything is a part of a thinking and a doing simultaneously; they are aspects of the same thing expressed in two registers.” For Spinoza, human psychology is “continually modified by the various encounters taking place between individual bodies and other finite things”.23 For him, the stuff of these encounters is affect. Understanding affect as both body and thought, he defines it as “the modifications of the body by which the power of action on the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the idea of those modifications”.24 As with modifications of the body, modifications of thought occur in the same way, through ideas which may be more or less adequate and more or less empowering. So affect, “defined as the property of the active outcome of an encounter, takes the form of an increase or decrease in the ability of the body and mind alike to act”. It structures encounters so that bodies are disposed for action-thought in particular ways.25 Therefore affect is about modification and concept: a modulation that is both about preparedness and meaning, disposition and position.
A body can be anything: it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a book, a mind or an idea; it can be a social body, a collectivity. The outcome of each encounter depends upon what forms of composition these encountering bodies are able to enter into. To understand an object as the level of such modulation, one does not look only for this object to mean something, but also to ask what things it functions in combination with, and in connection with what other things it transmits intensities with, and with “which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed”.26 Such an approach is integral to new concepts of media ecology, especially in the work of Matthew Fuller – ecologies that include, again following Vilém Flusser, active collections of actors, programs, parts, and tendencies. Such ecologies could be understood in terms of compositions (aggregates, assemblies) as well as transformational processes (transmissions, flows). We can think of multiple levels of organization, from the minimal to the maximal, and the ongoing translations between higher-order and lower-order states or aggregates. (For Spinoza, affects become something larger than individuated internal responses, and become greater or lesser forces of existing in nature at large. They exist on the same order as natural phenomena such as storms or floods. It is just a question of change in degree or kind.) What we recognize as “form” is a temporary stabilization.
Subjectivity is a complex body that emerges out an alliance of many simple bodies. It’s all one mix – no a priori differentiation between body and other, or subject and object, or thought and action. These are not given but emergent: a material state, and a condition of subjectivity, emerges out of the mix. Positions are adopted; roles emerge; identities coalesce. Certainly we can regard self-affection – the affective experience of one’s self, one’s vitality – as part of a process of subjectivation, yet affective resonance plays out within the field of the transcorporeal or social. It is not a matter of either/or, but of different registers and circuits of identity-emergence.

Perhaps I have moved deeply into my role as “volunteer victim” after all. The landscape that I’ve sketched here doesn’t lend itself to the traditional critical approach, which has been useful for debunking beliefs, powers, illusions, essentialist truths. It doesn’t promote such a deductive orientation. Rather, it would seem to promote the opposite of that. As Bruno Latour would say, the goal is not to reduce the dynamic, but to extend it further.27 Perhaps we too need to move beyond the disciplinary, enclosing and managing contained arguments, and instead find ways of incorporating extension – that is, ways of producing and managing excess. For with the modulating apparatus, there is always more not less. This does not involve only the changing of roles; it involves the rewriting of the script.
Is it possible to construct a network of interpretation that is nonreductive? What would we call that?
The task is a difficult one, because we don’t want to dispense with the valuable critical tools that we’ve inherited. And neither do we want to participate immersively in the anti-analytical orientation of consumer society, with its perpetual expansions and permissions. In a world of product placements, politics-as-entertainment, revisionism, reality-hacking, and perpetual spin, we need all the critics we can get. The challenge is to expand the language of cultural analysis in order to account for this compositional dimension – moving beyond an understanding of power solely in terms of its ideological effects, toward an understanding of power in terms of its ability to formulize and transmit affects. This compels us to endeavor to reveal the terms of the modulation – that is, the structuring of the modulating formula – not only an additive or “excessive” endeavor but a deductive one, even though our mobilizations of it may be otherwise. Such an expansive orientation could then be used to generate an expressive, performative politics. This would be a critical practice that is less “oppositional” than compositional: a form of political action that confronts affective modulation with affective modulation.
The crucial question, according to Massumi, is whether there are ways of practicing such an affective politics that doesn’t rely on violence and the hardening of divisions along identity lines that usually accompany it. As Brian Holmes notes in his reading of Suely Rolnik, such an expressive or performative politics requires an understanding of political resistance set out not only in terms of sterile confrontation with an objectified other, but also in terms of a transformational dynamic of reknitting, even reinventing, relations with others.28

Many years ago, Walter Benjamin made a casting call. His call was for a criticism that could function like advertising, affecting the reader with intensive, visceral projections that circumvent any form of contemplation. He advocated for intensities that, like a “burst of energy”, affect the very life of the subject.29

Yet is this not precisely the aim of contemporary power? Are we then to play the same game? On the same stage? With the same roles?

1. Source: campus recruitment notice.

2. ZZizzek, Slavoj, Enjoy Your Symptom!, New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 33-34.

3. See Holmes, Brian, «Emancipation», In: nettime mailing list, 5 July 2004, <http://www.nettime.org>; and Rolnik, Suely, «The Twilight of the Victim: Creation Quits Its Pimp, to Rejoin Resistance», In: Zehar, no. 51, 2003, p. 36.

4. Massumi, Brian, Parables for the Virtual, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 5-17. Massumi’s work, reading through Spinoza, Bergson, and Deleuze, is essential in these discourses.

5. Deleuze, Gilles, «Postscript on the Societies of Control», In: October, vol. 59, winter 1992, p. 3-7, also available at: <http://www.n5m.org/n5m2/media/texts/deleuze.htm>.

6. Agamben, Giorgio, «Security and Terror», In: Theory & Event, vol. 5, no. 4, 2002, translation by Carolin Emcke.

7. I owe this insight to Louise Amoore, who generously pointed it out to me in personal correspondence.

8. Agamben, Giorgio, op. cit.

9. As cited in The New York Times Book Review, 29 July 2007, p. 9.

10. Flusser, Vilém, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 2000, p. 21.

11. Massumi, Brian, op. cit., p. 27-28.

12. Turetzky, Philip, Time, New York: Routledge, 1998. Thanks to Retort for this quote.

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

14. Kittler, Friedrich, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

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

16. Thrift, Nigel, «Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect», In: Geografiska Annaler, series B, vol. 86, 2004, available at: <http://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/~kstraus/thrift/downloads/Thrift.pdf>. I am indebted to Nigel Thrift for many insights around affect and affective politics.

17. Virilio, Paul, In: Levin, Thomas; Frohne, Ursula and Weibel, Peter (ed.), [CTRL]SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveilance from Bentham to Big Brother, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 2002, p. 112; and Virilio, Paul, «Cold Panic», In: Cultural Politics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2005, p. 29.

18. See Armitage, John, «On Ernst Juenger’s ‘Total Mobilization’: A Re-Evaluation in the Era of the War on Terrorism», In: Body & Society, vol. 9, no. 4, 2003, p. 204.

19. De Landa, Manuel, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, New York: Swerve, 1997, p. 15.

20. In these terms the readying formula is something on the order of the Lacanian “sinthome” – that variation on the concept of the symptom that pertains to enjoyment rather than meaning. Thanks to Gary Farnell for pointing out this connection. See ZZizzek, Slavoj, Looking Awry, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 1991, p. 125-140.

21. As articulated by Brian Holmes in a personal conversation.

22. One does not want to emphasize one dimension over the other – as if affect had the potential of “freeing” the materiality of technology or the body from the constraints of discourse and representation. One doesn’t want to enter into the thorny territory of essentialism/constructivism debates or, even worse, inflammatory oppositions between science and religion. One doesn’t want to appear to feed into the anti-Enlightenment currents that rear their heads in the realms of marketing, “spin”, religious propaganda, and political campaigning.

23. Thrift, Nigel, op. cit., p. 59-60.

24. Spinoza, Ethics. III, def. 3, as cited In: Thrift, Nigel, op. cit., p. 60.

25. Thrift, Nigel, op. cit., p. 60.

26. Fuller, Matthew, Media Ecologies, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 2005.

27. For an important argument in this regard, see Latour, Bruno, «Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern», In: Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, winter 2004, p. 225-248.

28. See Holmes, Brian, «Emancipation», In: nettime mailing list, 5 July 2004. <http://www.nettime.org>, and Rolnik, Suely, op. cit.

29. As cited in Feuer, Menachem, «If This Space is For Rent, Who Will Move In?», In: CTheory, vol. 29, no. 1-2, 22 February 2006, <http://www.ctheory.net>.