Strangely Content-less: The Necropolitical Grind
Consider the following three situations drawn from everyday life. One: at a doctor’s, an elderly lady is trying to digitally measure her height and weight. She is first prompted to press several keys then step onto what seem like badly programmed digital scales. The measuring actions have to be executed in a particular sequence, and at a particular speed, not easily achieved by someone unaccustomed to the system and slow of movement. As a result, the measuring has to be repeated five times. With every repetition, the elderly lady gets more confused and more flustered. Yet, the offers to help, coming from several onlookers, are all declined by the medical assistant who repeatedly evokes the ‘privacy of the information’ and the corresponding ‘need’ for the elderly lady to complete the task on her own, despite the obvious damage to her sense of coordination, aptitude, even self-esteem.
Two: a colleague attempts to submit an expense claim via the newly ‘optimized’ expense claim system that is as far removed from intuitive design as can be yet locks the user out after fifteen minutes. The combination of illogical design and time pressure make my colleague work her way through the entire time-sensitive menu, with growing irritation but without making any progress no less than four times. She hyperventilates and, finally, abandons the project, willingly opting for a financial damage of £126 as the lesser of two evils.
Three: after a series of delayed transatlantic flights resulting in the total delay of thirty-six hours and two sleepless nights, I embark on a far more exhausting journey of attempting to obtain reimbursement for an overpriced hotel at which I had to stay as a result of the delay. After the initial clashes with the airline’s automated multiple-choice telephone trees, none of which correspond to my needs, and half a dozen failed attempts to, first, reach a live interlocutor, and, second, reach an interlocutor who can actually answer questions (instead of repeating scripted responses), I abandon the enterprise due to more pressing obligations. I return to it a few days later only to notice a slight tremor of the hand—a somatic inscription of accrued irritation and exhaustion—before even composing the number.
You may think that the common thread in these situations is technology, women, or the hassles of everyday life. Or, you may think it’s automated micro-violence. Automated micro-violence comes closer to the mark but doesn’t quite capture the mysterious relationship between the situations’ innocuous elements such as time, place, object (or digital platform) and action, and the necropolitical grind they produce. Although in each of these cases, a human being is present—the medical assistant, the software programmer, the call centre worker—they do not intervene. Paradoxically, they seem more automated than the systems whose grinding dynamics they support. In gaming, grinding dynamics is a type of game design that forces the user to repeat the same steps over and over again, through a process of trial and error, often to prevent them from reaching the goal of the game too quickly. Coming from the Latin necro, which means death or corpse, necropolitics is, simply put, the management of death. For Achille Mbembe, who first coined the term, it’s both the expression of sovereignty that resides in the power to ‘dictate who may live and who must die’ (2003:11) and the ‘generalized instrumentalization of human existence’ (14). Rooted in Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower and in Giorgio Agamben’s (Schmittian) notion of exception—which initially referred to the Nazi concentration camp’s suspension of law but has, since then, come to stand for engineered crisis—necropolitics shapes the conditions ‘for the acceptability of putting to death’ (Foucault quoted in Mbembe 2003: 17). It ‘makes and lets die’ (14).
“Automated micro-violence comes closer to the mark but doesn’t quite capture the mysterious relationship between the situations’ innocuous elements such as time, place, object (or digital platform) and action, and the necropolitical grind they produce.”
The problem, however, is that while overt killing, although atrocious, is unambiguous, letting die, which may have economic, social, psychological, or physical death as a result, is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore, also, address. One reason for this is that letting die comprises denigration, neglect, abandonment, the taciturn condoning of harmful practices and invisible, structural violence. First coined by Johann Galtung, structural violence is indirect and diffuse. It is particular to as institutions and networks, where there is no single perpetrator and no easily identifiable act of violence. Like hegemony, structural violence is embedded in daily routines, response mechanisms, assignments of energy, and culture in general; it is ‘silent … [and] may be seen as about as natural as the air around us’ (Galtung 1969: 173). Yet, as both Galtung and others have shown the fatal consequences of structural violence are globally over a hundred times greater than those of direct violence (Gilligan 1999).
“The problem, however, is that while overt killing, although atrocious, is unambiguous, letting die, which may have economic, social, psychological, or physical death as a result, is notoriously difficult to define, and therefore, also, address. One reason for this is that letting die comprises denigration, neglect, abandonment, the taciturn condoning of harmful practices and invisible, structural violence.”
We are thus faced with two problems; first, the leap from the seemingly negligible (because diffuse and ill-defined) to the catastrophic; and second, with the content-less-ness of the diffuse micro phenomena where what precisely the violent act is, how it occurred, and who perpetrated it, remains opaque. There are points of comparison though. For example, Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase ‘the medium is the message’. For McLuhan, who was writing in the 1960s, the behaviour-influencing effect of what were then ‘the new media’ didn’t have anything to do with the media’s content, but with its form. What mattered was not what one was watching on TV – the news or a children’s show – but the fact that one was receiving televised information passively. The efficacy of the medium (its ability to modify behaviour) resided in the medium’s ordering of space, time, action and interaction. A different yet related form of content-less-ness was discovered by Hannah Arendt who, in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil argued that Adolf Eichmann, head of the Nazi SS Section IV- B-4, responsible for the deportation of millions of Jews to their deaths, was not a monster, a fanatical anti-Semite or a sadist but a terrifyingly non-descript individual. Like the lesser Nazi officials in the 1945-1949 Nuremberg trials, during his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann tirelessly repeated the ‘I was merely following my orders’ mantra. But there was also something in Eichmann’s demeanour, in the meticulous repetitiveness of his gestures and utterances that convinced Arendt of the eerie absence of thinking, if thinking is understood as the ability to relate details to bigger-picture concerns, and to establish ethically inflected correlations between disparate elements. The trouble with Eichmann, in Arendt’s view, was not the conscious decision to ignore the inhumaneness of the murderous acts committed under his supervision, nor was it blind vengeance or delusion, it was the utter absence of any form of engagement whatsoever. Eichmann was not a fanatical or delusional murderer. He was not even a person but an empty site of citationality where trite linguistic and gestural conventions were relayed in an automatic fashion.
“The trouble with Eichmann, in Arendt’s view, was not the conscious decision to ignore the inhumaneness of the murderous acts committed under his supervision, nor was it blind vengeance or delusion, it was the utter absence of any form of engagement whatsoever.”
Eichmann’s vacuity may have been staged. What is remarkable, however, is his (conscious or unconscious) mimicking of the Nazi concentration camp’s most terrifying feature: the automation of extermination. Based on the industrial division of labour and the fragmentation of activities that make up the Fordist process of production, it made it possible (although certainly not forgivable) for, say, an officer in charge of extracting the victims’ golden teeth, to focus solely on the calculations pertaining to this particular ‘segment’ of the camp’s ‘operations’ and remain oblivious of the rest. Moreover, like the slave colony where the ‘master’ could kill at any time and without any reason whatsoever, the camp was a territory placed outside the juridical order. For Giorgio Agamben, it was also the ultimate expression of the paradoxical logic that lies at the heart of contemporary socio-politics: ‘all citizens can be said, in a specific but extremely real sense, to appear virtually as homines sacri’ (1998: 111). Referring to a timeless political trope – homo sacer – who, according to the Roman law, may be killed but not sacrificed, because s/he is expendable and unworthy of sacrifice, Agamben suggests that the concentration camp is the hidden matrix of the socio-political space of modernity that persists to the present day. The word ‘camp’ in this context denotes automated denigration and destruction and the resulting collective performative calibration.
“Based on the industrial division of labour and the fragmentation of activities that make up the Fordist process of production, it made it possible (although certainly not forgivable) for, say, an officer in charge of extracting the victims’ golden teeth, to focus solely on the calculations pertaining to this particular ‘segment’ of the camp’s ‘operations’ and remain oblivious of the rest.”
As Amy Sindler et al have conclusively proven in their 2004 study based on several hundred interviews with the holocaust survivors, who, fifty years after the event, continued to experience panic attacks whenever they had to queue for food (2004: 4-6) the camp continues to operate in the survivors’ sensorimotor systems. The camp is not a surpassed historical fact or a separate space; it is a somatic matrix repeatedly recreated in and by everyday actions and situations. Apart from anchoring new experiences in the traumatic event, the iterative capacity of this matrix is linked to another, purely formal factor: actions performed in a particular spatial and temporal order and with particular objects, are ritualistic. Having been put into a particular spatial and temporal order, they are performatively efficacious. This means that they inaugurate – promote to normality, to ‘business as usual’ – that which they indicate. When witnessed by others, they are also tradition constituting. Yet, their ritualistic effect has nothing to do with their content, only with their embedded-ness in a particular ordering of time, place, object and action, which sediments as affective residue and colours expectations. When an experience has been painful or frightening two or three times, we expect it to be painful or frightening the fourth and the fifth time. Even if the pain or the projected horror do not occur in reality, they will have occurred virtually.
“The camp is not a surpassed historical fact or a separate space; it is a somatic matrix repeatedly recreated in and by everyday actions and situations.”
Given the bio-socially deeply harmful effect of such seemingly innocuous things as medial or performance efficacy, ritualisation and affective sedimentation, covert necropolitics should be dissociated from such notions as ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘motive’, ‘purpose’ and ‘result’. Instead, we need to consider necropolitics as an emergent phenomenon and look to its aesthetics, that is, dynamics, velocity, emplacement, sedimentation, the forming of patterns, tendencies and relations, somatic, affective and social residue to grasp its forms of manifestation and operation. The political has always been both a residue of past practices/relations, and an emergent phenomenon. To borrow from Claude Lefort, it is ‘the mise en forme of human coexistence’ (in Mouffe 2007: 4) that includes conscious as well as unconscious regions of being, seeing, and doing. In other words, the political is always already situated at the threshold of perceptibility and knowability, in spatial, temporal, and sensorial terms. For Jacques Rancière, like for Lefort, politics is not the (more or less consensual) governance of the commons, it is that which precedes consensus: rhythm, patterns, shared space and time, interaction, and the sedimentation of perceptual habits as thought, attitude and affect.
Edited by Natasha Lushetich, The Aesthetics of Necropolitics is an interdisciplinary collection of essays by Franco Berardi, Critical Art Ensemble, Tiffany Funk, Marina Gržinić, Jens Hauser, May Joseph, Sarah Juliet Laure, Malin Palani, Verónica Tello and Mi You. The collection ponders necropolitical tendencies at the level of ‘emptiness’, ‘background phenomena’ and ‘business as usual’ that characterise all diffuse yet irreparably harmful situations.
The Aesthetics of Necropolitics
Natasha Lushetich is an artist and theorist. Her research is interdisciplinary and focuses on intermedia, biopolitics and performativity, the status of sensory experience in cultural knowledge, hegemony, disorder and complexity. She is the author of two books: Fluxus: the Practice of Non-Duality (Rodopi 2014) and Interdisciplinary Performance (Palgrave 2016). She is also co-editor of On Game Structures (Taylor and Francis 2016) and editor of Beyond Mind, a special issue of Symbolism, the Interdisciplinary Journal of Critical Aesthetics (De Gruyter 2019). Natasha’s recent writing has appeared in Artnodes; Contemporary Aesthetics; Environment, Place, Space; Media Theory; Performance Research; Text and Performance Quarterly, TDR, The Journal of Somaesthetics and Total Art Journal as well as in a number of edited collections. She is currently Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Practices & Visual Studies at LaSalle, Singapore.
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